‘Harvard was a great place to be Catholic – I felt like a rebel’: an interview with Aurora Griffin

The Holy Hour at St Paul’s church, Harvard, on the day when a Black Mass was scheduled on campus in 2014 (CNS)

Aurora Griffin is no stranger to the pages of the Catholic Herald, having written here about her book, How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard (Ignatius Press), and here about her successful efforts to stop a Black Mass taking place at Harvard.

Having now read her book with its many thoughtful and practical suggestions for how young Catholics leaving school can grow in their Faith at university rather than abandon it, I have now caught up with its young yet very articulate author to learn more about her experiences. Did she make a decision to take her faith seriously before going to Harvard, or as a result to the culture she found there?

Aurora tells me that she made the decision at high school: “I was raised Catholic but experienced a period of doubt, so I embarked on a pursuit of Truth. Unsurprisingly, it led me right back to where I started, into the arms of Mother Church. So by the time I got to university I was sure my faith was important to me. I structured my social life, academics and extracurricular activities around pursuing my faith more deeply. Fortunately Harvard was a great place to be Catholic.”

I had assumed that Harvard is a very secular environment, so this last remark surprised me. Aurora explains that “it was not a Catholic place, but part of the joy for me was feeling like a bit of a rebel. If Harvard has an ideology as an institution, it is secular.” She adds that “As a Catholic, I experienced very little pushback, except when I was defending the Church’s stance on abortion. When I wrote pro-life articles, for example, I neither expected nor received much support.”

Analysing the student population at Harvard, Aurora says that those hostile to the faith “are not really available to form meaningful friendships. Those who are indifferent might be. There are many, though, who are genuinely interested in the Faith, even if they don’t accept its premises or conclusions. These people make great friends, not because of some remote possibility of converting them but because they often think about the same kinds of things that matter to religious people: Life, death, happiness, truth etc.”

Reflecting further, she tells me that in order to form a close friendship with a non-believer, “two things are required: genuine and mutual goodwill, and respect for the other’s intellect. My atheist friends are people who believe I want good things, and that, were they to accept my premises, they would also accept my conclusions.”

Referring to her book, Aurora points out that in it she encourages people “to make friends with people who are not like them i.e. not religious, because those friendships can be some of the most beautiful and fruitful of all.”

After graduating from Harvard, Aurora studied theology at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. How does Oxford compare with her alma mater? She thinks there are a lot more resources for Catholics at Oxford, explaining that “while the Harvard Catholic community is concentrated around St Paul’s parish, there are many communities with different religious charisms in Oxford. Though the university may be secular as a whole, and the English culture is decidedly more secular, the Catholic communities at Oxford, such as the Benedictines, Dominicans, Jesuits and Oratorians, have roots that historically grew alongside and within the university.”

She adds, “It is said that Aquinas himself walked the halls of Blackfriars. One gets the sense that being Catholic at Oxford is a well-trodden path. JRR Tolkien, John Henry Newman and many others have come before and hopefully a good many will come after.”

A final question: I am curious about a remark in her book in which she comments that the Traditional Latin Mass led her to a deeper appreciation for the structure and prayers of the New Mass. Aurora explains that in that chapter she points out that “the Traditional Mass can be very disorientating for someone unfamiliar with it. If you can push past that, you uncover something of great beauty: the Mass of the Ages.”

She concludes by telling me that in her home town in California, “the liturgy is very casual. Communion feels like a family meal and that highlights the parallels between the Sacrament and the Last Supper. However, the Traditional Mass highlights the connection between the Cross and the Eucharist. When I go up to receive Jesus there, I feel I am marching up to Calvary, laying myself down to die and taking the risen Christ with me back to the pew. Once I began to see the Eucharist this way in the Traditional Mass I was able to see it more clearly in the Novus Ordo. Both the supper imagery and the Cross are present, but the latter speaks to me in a more powerful way, so that even when I cannot attend the Old Mass it informs how I experience the New.”