For Chinese students, Catholicism is a new adventure at diocesan high schools

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PROVIDENCE — International students are a growing part of Rhode Island’s high school population, making up as much as 10 percent of the student body at some Catholic high schools. For these students, many of whom come from China, attending high school in the U.S. brings with it an array of cultural challenges, including a new schedule, extracurricular activities and the adjustment of living with a host family. International students studying at diocesan high schools have another important piece of their education to navigate, one that’s nearly unheard-of in the Chinese educational system: faith.

Steve Huang, a junior at Bishop Hendricken High School, is one of these students. Huang grew up in Beijing and started attending Bishop Hendricken as a freshman. As a Chinese student, he had little exposure to Catholicism prior to coming to the U.S. and chose to study at a Catholic high school primarily for its college prep curriculum.

“I mainly wanted to pursue a higher level of education in America, getting ready for college,” he explained. “At the beginning, I was not used to the concept of Catholicism.”

Huang’s experience is similar to that of many Chinese exchange students who come from a country that has a tense relationship with the Catholic Church and does not promote religious practice in general. A 2011 Pew Center study found that approximately nine million Chinese, about 0.7 percent of the total population, identify as Catholic, though a majority of these associate with a state-sponsored organization that is not in full communion with the Vatican, while others attend underground churches in an effort to avoid government influence in their faith. The result for students like Huang is a lack of clear information about the Catholic faith and a general absence of the Catholic education model that is prevalent in the U.S.

“For the Chinese, it’s 100 percent non-religious,” said David Flanagan, an assistant principal at Bishop Hendricken who oversees the international student program. “Conceptually, it is difficult for some of these students.”

Chulin Pan, a sophomore at St. Raphael Academy, came to the U.S. from China as a freshman. In addition to her unfamiliarity with Catholicism, she said her limited English made her first year religion class very difficult.

“The first difficulty for me is the language. My English was very poor at that time. And the theology class was very confusing because I had never had religion class before.”

Pan’s teacher, Caroline Aldrich, tries to help her international students understand the material by developing alternative teaching methods. Over the years, she has introduced a Chinese translation of the triangle representing the trinity into the classroom and drawn comparisons between the book of Genesis and a Chinese creation story. Though the material is new for many of her international students, Aldrich said this doesn’t necessarily set them apart from the rest of the class, as many of her American students are also unfamiliar with the tenets of Catholic theology.

“It becomes a very visible reminder to me to explain everything in class,” said Aldrich. “It helps me to be a better teacher.”

Lily Araujo, a religion teacher and director of campus ministry at The Prout School, said the situation is similar in her classroom, where American students might have grown up around Christianity but aren’t necessarily more familiar with Catholic theology than their international peers. She attributes this to a wide range of student backgrounds and a general decrease in the number of Catholic parents who pass the faith on to their children.

“The reality is at any Catholic school, many of the kids are not Catholic and the kids who are Catholic aren’t necessarily practicing,” she said.

Araujo finds that her international students — and American students — are most engaged in the class when learning stories from the Bible, as these stories contain messages that are universal regardless of a person’s level of knowledge or experience with faith.

“I find that for the most part they’re all pretty curious,” she said. “And curious is good. I think asking questions is important.”

The interest in Catholicism among international students varies and is often expressed through their participation in activities such as campus ministry, music ministry or service. Yanyan Mo, a junior at St. Ray’s, still observes many of the Buddhist traditions she learned from her grandmother but enjoys participating in the school’s Catholic service program, Lasallian Youth.

“It helped me a lot to experience the religion and the culture here,” said Mo. “It’s not just for service hours anymore.”

Fe “Kitty” Xu, a senior at The Prout School, became involved with a local Episcopal church through her host family and now helps with Sunday school for the younger children. She also enjoys singing in the school choir. Her favorite song to perform is “Ave Maria,” one of several Latin hymns the students sing at school Masses and concerts.

“It was really hard at first because the pronunciation is a little bit different,” said Kitty, who added that she especially likes performing at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Providence. “The acoustics are great.”

For many Chinese students, participation in Catholic ministries is a regular part of attending a private high school in the U.S., as most of these activities have a social component and offer opportunities like service or leadership roles. However, just like with American students, for some, the school’s Catholic identity goes beyond its extracurriculars to provide a deeper connection to the faith.

Yanxu “Loki” Zhou, a junior at The Prout School, entered the school as a freshman and initially had trouble adjusting to the new routine. Earlier this year, he began attending morning prayer with Philip Faraone, a religion teacher and music director who leads the students in an optional Liturgy of the Hours every morning before the bell. The daily prayer sessions, which take place in the chapel, are usually attended by no more than a half dozen students.

“It’s silence, because just a few people [are] here,” said Loki. “I kind of feel safe. It actually helps me to start the day.”

Like many of his fellow Chinese students, Loki said that while he didn’t grow up practicing a particular religion, his mother is open to the idea of faith and encourages him to explore his options in a Catholic school. Asked if he had considered becoming Catholic and attending Mass regularly, he paused thoughtfully.

“Depends on the stage of your life,” he said. “Someday, I might want to attend.”

Despite his important role in introducing students to Catholicism through religion class, Faraone was quick to stress that his goal as a teacher is not to convert students, but to serve as a witness to the faith and pray that the Holy Spirit works in them.

“It’s not about the tests, it’s about trying to witness to the faith. You can get an A on the test and that doesn’t make you a Christian or a Catholic. You just throw the seed out there, and you don’t know where it’s going to stick.”

Faraone added that despite the language barrier and difficulty with the subject material, international students are among the most respectful and open in his classes because they recognize the importance of the Catholic traditions taking place. Whether this openness is the same curiosity given to all new cultural traditions or hides a deeper connection will take time to tell, but Faraone is encouraged by what he sees during the school day.

“When a kid shows up for morning prayer every day, he wants to be there,” he said.