By Heather Li
That I grew up Roman Catholic strikes me as absurd. I am an obvious Chinese woman whose parents were born and raised in a marginalized Chinese community in Calcutta, India (now, Kolkata). Aren’t Catholics supposed to be Italian grandmas with wooden crosses in their kitchens? Or pale Irish schoolchildren lining up nervously outside church? I can’t tell if other people think my Catholic roots are strange too and they’re just being polite. Maybe the fact that seven in 10 Canadians identify as Roman Catholic or Protestant means that an Asian person claiming Christianity in multi-everything Toronto is simply ordinary.
For a long time it felt extremely ordinary to me. I was born in Toronto, attended two Catholic elementary schools in North York, and spent four years at an infamous all-girls Catholic high school in Willowdale: St. Joseph’s Morrow Park, more affectionately known as “St. Ho’s.” (Compared with what I later heard public students did in junior high, the majority of us in our hiked-up kilts were far from sexually obsessed hos.) Most importantly, though, the elders in my family seemed very Catholic. Father, mother, aunts and uncles attended church every Sunday. They happily celebrated the Catholic rites I fulfilled as a child. They all invoked Jesus or God or the Church in some lecturing way to coerce me into favourable behaviour. Like I said, extremely ordinary.
I started questioning everything when I hit my teenage years, as most people do. I also stopped attending church regularly at 17 when my parents divorced. Then, while earning my journalism degree at Ryerson University, I learned about British colonialism and how Western religions entered foreign lands aiming to convert natives. With this newfound knowledge, I quickly connected the dots about my own family and one question grew louder in my head: Why the hell are we Catholic?
I investigated by asking my dad and his sisters about their deceased parents: “Were they Catholic?” They responded that my grandmother wasn’t and that my grandfather converted on his deathbed—which appalled me since he had Alzheimer’s. “So what were they?” An aunt or two thought probably Buddhist. I asked my dad, “Why are you Catholic?” A pause. His eyebrows furrowed in confusion, then finally: “As a kid, the priest gave out food and told interesting stories.” Also, all his friends were doing it, they were very poor and the Catholic schools there were much cheaper than the rest. At the time, as an impulsive 18-year-old, I blurted out, “So you were tricked into being Catholic.” He and my aunts flatly denied this because really, who wants to say they were duped into relinquishing their ancestral belief system? It’s probably not as simple as I’m making it out. But one generation of Catholics within a multi-millennial culture was enough to make me seriously reconsider my position on the matter.
I never brought it up again. I knew in my relatively traditional family, breaking the religious mold we formed over 40-plus years wouldn’t go over well. Throughout my undergrad, I attended church at least once a year, groping to find even a remote connection to the religion I was born into but that my parents weren’t. I never felt a thing. I even thought God had picked up and left because he didn’t want to be associated with a fear-inducing organization that had its own systemic problem of pedophilia and gross hypocrisy.
Now, I only attend church out of obligation. Baptisms, weddings, funerals. I can still recite all the prayers and sing all the songs and I remember all the stories. Until writing this story, I’ve never told my family where I stand religiously. They likely know I don’t care for Catholicism anymore. No one pushes me on the matter but I can feel the frowning sometimes. When I consider how the religion was pushed upon masses of people though, the thing I find most absurd about growing up Roman Catholic is my family’s frowning. At the same time, it’s extremely ordinary.
Heather Li is a journalist and editor based in Toronto. In her spare time, she eats, travels and practices hot yoga. Follow her on Twitter @hjli.