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On Faith, Education, and Cathedrals

“When is last time you go to Catholic Mass?” I look down from my mother’s technicolor FaceTime profile. “This past Sunday.” She smiles, and the conversation moves on to other topics: my grandparents’ health, NPR’s coverage of the new Vatican-China deal, my cousins’ college visit to the States. I sigh in relief.

Had she not bought my fib, I’d have answered “June,” when our newly green card-endowed family visited China for the first time in over a decade and prayed in a cathedral. As I knelt before the priest’s altar, I came eye to eye with Mao Zedong’s portrait nestled at the foot of crucified Christ. My extended family, clutching their rosaries, noticed nothing. I felt a tear well up — or perhaps a wave of nausea at their ignorance. I haven’t stepped back into a church since and certainly have not attended Mass at Harvard.

If you’re confused, my worship hesitation doesn’t stem from a loss of faith in God or in religion. It’s because of a dilemma that many immigrants and bright-eyed academics wrestle with every day: The burden of knowing far too much about the status quo in the Catholic Church to stay complacent, yet being momentarily powerless to execute impactful change. “But Minjue,” one might question, “this isn’t a rare problem, and certainly not one exclusive to Harvard.” They’d be right. Yet that doesn’t expedite the problem solving process, especially in an institution where students are bred to be “citizen-leaders” that create “conditions for social transformation.”

My feelings resurface when I scroll through BBC News one day and see the headline “China Catholic bishops: Historic deal with Vatican reached,” or read about the Chinese government’s unprecedented recognition of the Vatican’s authority to legitimize Catholic bishops, or hear that Pope Francis has approved seven Chinese government-appointed bishops. Leveraging my handy Government 20 analytical skills, my stomach sinks as I realize the tentative political deal is China’s foot in the Vatican’s door — its utilization of the Holy See’s authority in its bureaucracy. China has enshrined government-prescribed teachings while increasing persecution of the underground Catholic Church more than ever before. Yet, when I try to explain to my mother that our very-underground-Catholic family in China is repressed with state-mandated doctrines that have violated our human rights, she doesn’t believe it. Instead, she insists, “The Pope is always right, and now he’s on China’s side. That’s great!”

At some point, I realized I had to accept there is an information boundary I can’t cross with my mother. Unlike me, she (and most of the ten million Catholics in China) didn’t grow up with a copy of Nora Lam’s autobiography China Cry, documenting the horrors of Catholic concentration camps during Mao Zedong’s Anti-Rightist Movement. She wasn’t surrounded by a community of religiously diverse peers who revealed to her how easily Catholics’ sermon-based teachings are dictated by a traditionally religiously oppressive Chinese government. And she certainly couldn’t stick around after lecturer Adrian Zenz’s “Recent Developments in Xinjiang” lecture at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies to confirm the worst: Crackdown on underground clergy is at its harshest.

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What I’ve been having a hard time accepting is that there’s little I can do to change the injustices I know.

I’ve spoken with many other students, from China, Bangladesh, Somalia, and Ukraine, who share the same experience under different news headlines. We’re trapped in another cathedral of education, where education is our faith and inaction is our oppression. And so far, we’ve responded with the same ritualized prayer: worry, discussion, finding cultural groups on campus, speaking with professors, attending speaker events, and returning back to where we started. It makes us uneasy, talking to each other about our countries like wounds we can’t heal.

Over the past few weeks, however, I’ve been reflecting on my avoidance of all of these forms of cathedrals and churches. I’ve gone to my Chinese Government professor’s office hours, and felt a breath of fresh air when, instead of criticizing my accidental slip into Mandarin, he continued in our conversation in our mother tongue. I’ve made boba tea with the Asian American Women’s Association, comforted my Bangladeshi roommate about native conflicts, and offered a fresh perspective on Bai Juyi’s “Song of Lasting Pain” in Humanities 10a. These experiences have helped me realize, slowly, that “only knowing” isn’t a sign of shame, and “not doing” is just a passage of the present. Like a coiled spring, my potential only increases with time, and avoiding it is more of a sign of cowardice.

This week, when I FaceTime my mother, I think I’ll be able to give a truthful answer for the first time since June. There is enough space in cathedrals for faith and education, knowing and ignorance, doing and not doing. Most of all, there’s time, and forgiveness. It’s just up to us to wait for them.

Minjue Wu ’22, a Crimson Editorial Editor, lives in Canaday Hall.

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