Asian and Pacific Presence: Harmony in Faith
A statement by the Committee on Migration. ©2001 USCCB

 IV. Building Communion and Harmony: Challenges and Our Responses

The whole world is facing the phenomenon of increasing ethnic diversity. Technological advances in communication and travel facilities, globalization of business, and international migration are taking place on every continent.

In the United States, the unprecedented growth of immigration from Asia and the Pacific in the last century calls all Catholics to truly understand a different way of thinking, acting, and feeling. The arrival of immigrants—even of those who come bearing gifts of time, talent, and treasure—creates challenges and tensions. The very gifts they bring challenge the Church to view itself and the world in a different perspective. Asian and Pacific communities present different ways of relating to other people, of believing, of praying, of being Church.

Laying the Foundation

To face the pastoral challenges of ministering to and with Asian and Pacific communities, steps have been taken by the Church at the national, diocesan, and parish levels. The following is a brief chronology of significant measures.

  • 1975: Resettlement of refugees from Southeast Asia becomes a priority of the U.S. bishops' department of Migration and Refugee Services (MRS). The work of refugee resettlement continues in more than one hundred dioceses to this day.

  • 1982: To establish a fraternal channel of communication and collaboration, bishops of the United States send delegates to the meetings of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences—a practice that continues today.

  • 1989: The bishops' Committee on Migration and the national MRS office convene diocesan directors and leaders to discuss the pastoral care needs and opportunities for the Asian and Pacific communities in the United States.

  • 1990: The first national consultation with the Asian communities is called by the National Catholic Educational Association. Involvement in this awareness-raising on the part of the MRS Office for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees (MRS/PCMR) led to the hiring of more Asian and Pacific persons as diocesan and national MRS staff.

  • 1994: The first national gathering of Asian and Pacific Catholic leaders in Menlo Park, Archdiocese of San Francisco, is convened by MRS/PCMR.

  • 1994: A network of diocesan directors involved in Asian and Pacific ministry is established.

  • 1996: The first Asian Pastoral Experience Program to the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Korea is organized by the network.

  • l997: A National Task Force is convened by the Committee on Migration to study contributions, issues, concerns, and common trends in the Asian and Pacific communities.

  • 1997: The Committee on Migration organizes a symposium on the Church in China, which is attended by sixteen bishops from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) (now called the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops [USCCB]).

  • 1999: The Second Asian Pastoral Experience Program to the Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan/Thailand is conducted.

  • 1999: A Convocation on Asian and Pacific Concerns is organized by the University of Notre Dame Institute of Church Life. Three bishops participate.

  • 1999: Five bishops led by the president of the NCCB visit Vietnam.

  • 2000: Many Asian and Pacific leaders actively participate in diocesan jubilee celebrations and the national gathering Encuentro 2000, which was held in Los Angeles.

In many dioceses, offices or ministries focus on pastoral care for Asian and Pacific communities as well as support apostolates for particular ethnic groups. Some dioceses have begun annual Asian and Pacific gatherings that strengthen the unity of all the communities and celebrate their traditions and cultures. In addition, a few seminaries have conducted workshops on the Asian presence and spirituality.

Some bishops have established Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese parishes or missions. Pastoral centers for small ethnic communities, such as the Cambodian, Hmong, Khmhu, Laotian, Samoan, and Tongan communities, have been organized in several dioceses, and multiple pastoral centers in different parts of the country provide ministry to the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese Catholics. These centers not only offer catechesis, Bible studies, prayer services, and linguistically appropriate religious education materials, but also provide a place for members of these communities to experience their own language and culture and to affirm their own cultural and ethnic roots. Special tribute must be given to priests, religious, and lay leaders from the United States who have worked hard to learn Asian languages and cultures in order to become more effective ministers.

On the part of particular Asian and Pacific Islander groups, creative and effective initiatives in the parishes and sometimes in the region have helped to bring together and support community development and interaction among themselves and with other cultural groups. Chinese, Korean, Samoan, and Tongan families gather for Bible study. Indonesian, Khmhu, Korean, Laotian, and Vietnamese youth hold summer camps at which catechesis is conducted in their own languages. Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, Samoans, Tongans, and Vietnamese have vibrant music ministries and choirs.

Some Asian and Pacific ethnic communities have successfully formed national structures to build collective identity: for example, the Hmong-American Catholic National Association; the Federation of Vietnamese Clergy, Religious, and Lay Leaders; the Korean Priests Association of America and Canada; the Indian American Catholic Association, Inc.; and the National Filipino Ministry Council. Unfortunately, these communities sometimes exist side by side, mainly in isolation, with little or no connection between diocesan structures or between other ethnic and cultural communities in the Church.

We bishops pray that this pastoral statement will motivate members of the Church at every level to build on these achievements and strengthen ties to the local church. The following section describes some challenges and offers suggestions around which national, diocesan, and parish responses can be planned.

Maintaining the Integrity of the Family

Family. Though the family is a highly prized gift, Asian and Pacific Americans experience grave difficulties in maintaining the integrity of traditional family structures and values. Traditional values, such as marriage stability, the discipline of children, filial reverence, respect for the elderly, veneration of ancestors, and emphasis on extended family relations, are lived out in very different ways in each culture.

Adaptation to the dominant culture is never easy for immigrants. Because migration puts a great strain on family life, many traditional families have become dysfunctional as Asian and Pacific immigrants adapt themselves to changes and demands of their new life and their new country. The numbers of broken homes, gangs, teenage pregnancies, runaways, drug abusers and their victims, and attempted suicides continue to rise as parents find it difficult to balance the demands of making a living and spending sufficient time with their families. Whereas in their native countries, most wives and mothers were able to remain at home to care for their families, in the United States, they must join the labor force in order to pay their bills. The context of the extended family system, which provides a healthy, nurturing, and supportive family life, is sorely missing. Migration cuts people off from their extended family and leaves them isolated.

In Asian and Pacific cultures, the traditional roles for men and women tend to be clearly delineated. In American society, the roles are different, especially in regard to childrearing and discipline, money management, gender relations, and generational relations. While change is inevitable, it often leads to tension and other problems within the Asian and Pacific family.

The economic pressures placed on families force young couples to work long hours. Asian and Pacific parents usually leave their children with babysitters or with their elderly parents. The transmission of faith, however, is not part of a babysitter's job. In addition, even if grandparents desire to transmit faith or traditional values to their grandchildren, they are often unable to do so because of language handicaps or lack of religious environments. For the most part, children grow up exposed daily to a secular society, and their faith formation is relegated to the background, if not neglected completely. Through family enrichment programs, dioceses and parishes should intentionally invite and aid Asian and Pacific parents to become more effective channels in developing the faith life of their families.

Youth. Second- and subsequent-generation Asian and Pacific youth struggle not only with the pains of growing up but also with the conflict of cultural values between their parents and American culture. On the one hand, they experience an environment at home where family is the most important consideration, where mutual support among family members is fostered, and where smooth interpersonal relationships or family harmony is stressed. Outside their homes, they experience emphasis on different values: individuality, independence, and competition. Caught between seeming contradictions, many Asian and Pacific youth experience a deep identity crisis that becomes more serious as the communication and generation gap between the youth and the elders widen.

In their desire to be like their U.S.-born counterparts, Asian and Pacific youth, like other immigrant youth, tend to reject the traditional values of their families and begin to assert themselves. Those left without any form of guidance and supervision after school spend their time in the company of their peers and sometimes are led astray. These youth must be taught Asian and Pacific histories, cultures, values, stories, and myths as a way to help them appreciate their cultural heritage. At the same time—as a way to develop understanding of the Asian and Pacific peoples, the gifts they bring, and the challenges they face—parish and diocesan educational materials can utilize evocative pedagogy using stories, parables, and symbols respectful of Asian and Pacific heritage, faith practices, and teaching methods.

Single Asian and Pacific young adults are often left alone to find their place either in society or in the Church. They need guidance during the difficult period of cultural adjustment, career change, vocation discernment, and other important decisions young people have to make. They should be encouraged to take part in parish youth and young adult formation and leadership programs and become actively involved in the organization of program activities. More importantly, as Pope John Paul II has stated,

the many complex problems which young people now face . . . impel the Church to remind the young of their responsibility for the future of society and the Church, and to encourage and support them at every step to ensure that they are ready to accept that responsibility. . . . The Christian formation of young people . . . should recognize that they are not only the object of the Church's pastoral care but also "agents and co-workers in the Church's mission in her various apostolic works of love and service."25

Elderly. Elderly parents experience an identity crisis of a different nature. Once figures of authority in their native country, Asian and Pacific elderly parents in America might become totally dependent on their children. This contrasts painfully with the reverence traditionally shown to elders in their native lands. Unable to communicate even with their own grandchildren, they are often engulfed in a deep sense of loneliness and isolation. Unless they become part of a senior center, many spend their time within the confines of their homes, unable to articulate their needs, to socialize, and to feel a sense of family belonging. Parishes are encouraged to develop family ministries that incorporate more sensitive ways to reach out to elderly immigrants for social and spiritual nourishment.

Yearning for Catholic Education

As mentioned earlier, a great number of Asian and Pacific immigrants (both Catholic and non-Catholic) have received Catholic education in their homelands and desire it for their children as well. Catholic schools can be more open and inviting to all, especially to those of other religious traditions who might have attended Catholic schools in their homelands. This would continue the long tradition of educational and social service structures, serving as effective channels of evangelization.

In addition, families with children in the public schools wish to continue religious education for their children. Creative options need to be developed to offer Catholic children in public schools opportunities to learn and celebrate their faith.

Moreover, Catholic schools are attractive for their solid education and discipline. Many Asian and Pacific parents would like to send their children to Catholic schools in the United States; however, these schools have become very expensive, especially for many young families with two or more children. As a remedy, some scholarship options are being explored by Catholic schools.

A Threefold Dialogue with Religions, Cultures, and the Poor

Since the Second Vatican Council, our brother bishops in Asia, who gather regularly as the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences, have developed a pastoral approach that emphasizes a threefold dialogue: with other religions, with cultures, and with the poor. Such dialogue can also be explored for its enriching fruitfulness at all levels of the Church in the United States.

Dialogue with Other Religions. Like other immigrants before them, those from Asian and Pacific communities want to be companions on the faith journey with the American people. Essential to an understanding of Asian and Pacific communities is the dialogue with other religions. This means recognizing key themes of the spirituality and theology of religions, especially Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam, Taoism, and some indigenous religions. In beginning the dialogue, as the Holy Father points out, several religious values exist that are of the highest significance: for example, in Islam, the centrality of the will of God; in Hinduism, the practice of meditation, contemplation, renunciation of one's will, and the spirit of nonviolence; in Buddhism, detachment and compassion; in Confucianism, filial piety and humanitarianism; in Taoism, simplicity and humility; in other traditional religions, reverence and respect for patience.26 Interreligious dialogue at its deepest level is always a dialogue of salvation, because it seeks to discover, classify, and understand better the signs of the age-long dialogue that God maintains with humanity. This dialogue will bring about truly inculturated theology, liturgy, and spirituality among Asian and Pacific Americans in order to live and announce the message of Christ.

Dialogue with Cultures. For too long, Catholicism and Christianity have been seen by Asian and Pacific people as "Western." Despite the Catholic Church's centuries-long presence and many apostolic endeavors, in many places it is still considered foreign to Asia and the Pacific Islands and is often associated in people's minds with the colonial powers. Pope John Paul II writes,

The test of true inculturation is whether people become more committed to their Christian faith because they perceive it more clearly with the eyes of their own culture. . . . [Furthermore,] through inculturation the Church, for her part, becomes a more intelligible sign of what she is, and a more effective instrument of mission. . . . But it has a special urgency today in the multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural situation of Asia.27

Jesus came to bring salvation to all persons of every culture and language. The Catholic Church is universal in nature and reaches out to all peoples with the Good News of the Lord. In the United States, inculturation has particular significance for the Asian and Pacific immigrants who arrived in the 1800s and the early half of the nineteenth century, when cultural assimilation was encouraged and was the criterion for acceptance by society and the Church. Establishing contact with the cultural and social life of immigrants will probably remain the most serious challenge for the Church in the matter of inculturation. This challenge emerges on all levels, especially on the level of parish or neighborhood, where persons of different cultural backgrounds meet.

The Holy Father points out that "it is indeed a mystery why the Savior of the world, born in Asia, has until now remained largely unknown to the people of this continent."28 The Holy Father expresses his hope that—as the Church became well established during the first millennium in Europe and the Western countries, and in the second millennium grew and flourished in Latin America and Africa—the third millennium will see the Church in Asia come into its own.

At the same time, the religious practices of some Asian and Pacific peoples must be formed by authentic biblical and ecclesial theology and not submerged in a popular piety that is in need of a fuller Catholic catechesis. "As a vital dimension in Catholic life, there exists in Christian communities, particular expressions of the search for God and the religious life which are full of fervor and purity of intention. . . . This is a rich yet vulnerable reality in which the faith at its base may be in need of purification and consolidation."29 For others, situations of oppression or of isolation in their homelands have sometimes prevented the dissemination of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council or of the Church's magisterial teachings and liturgical practices since the Council. The characteristic loyalty and devotion of Asian and Pacific Catholics make their authentic formation in Catholic faith and piety all the more essential for their important role in the future of the Church in North America. The duty of catechesis for inculturation of the faith is "to recognize a cultural dimension in the Gospel itself while affirming, on the one hand, that this does not spring from some human cultural humus, and recognizing, on the other, that the Gospel cannot be isolated from the cultures in which it was initially inserted and in which it has found expression through the centuries."30

Dialogue with the Poor. This framework for dialogue with our Asian and Pacific communities comes out of the reality of their homelands. Despite the persistence of the myth of Asian Americans as the "model minority,"31 in reality, many Asian Americans are poor and in need of help. Among the poorest Asian and Pacific families are those who came as refugees challenged to compete in a society very different from the ones they left behind; those who came in the hulls of ships under irregular immigration situations, often ending up in sweat shops or being trafficked into illegal activities, and living under deplorable conditions; and those who work in jobs that take them away from their families and residences, such as seafarers, migrants, and circus workers. Many are exploited, and their human rights, violated. But John Paul II's words offer the hope that "Hers [the Church's] is always the evangelical cry in defense of the world's poor, those who are threatened and despised and whose human rights are violated."32

Intercultural Communication

Learning about intercultural communication is doubly important because it is needed not only to work effectively in various ministries, but also to help the different ethnic and cultural communities in our parishes understand what is happening to them. Sometimes it is mistakenly presumed that everyone knows all about intercultural communication because American society is multicultural.

Basic communication between cultures becomes a challenge not only because of language but also, more importantly, because of differing cultural modes of expression. In particular, the importance of the individual and the right to self-expression practiced in American culture often clash with traditional values of Asian and Pacific families. One example that reveals the need for education about intercultural communication for both immigrants and native-born Americans is the Asian cultural ideal of harmony, expressed by silence in the face of situations of conflict. By nature, Asian and Pacific people keep questions and problems to themselves and articulate only those that they must. As a result, full account of their struggles is not seen in its totality. Pastoral workers have difficulty understanding this deep reticence to bring difficulties and complaints into the open. Ancient Asian cultural tendencies must be understood and respected even as ministers help Asian and Pacific peoples to become more expressive of their needs.

In addition, Asian and Pacific Islanders are reared in cultures of hospitality where person-to-person relationships are vital to human interaction and communication. Emphasis is upon relationships. Therefore, contact needs to be made and relationships established between parishes and these peoples. Asian and Pacific immigrants are drawn into the life of the parish via these relationships. Parishes can offer diversity and intercultural communications training to leaders and parishioners to develop awareness and skills for more effective hospitality and empowerment processes.

Empowering Leadership for Solidarity and Community

Clergy and Religious. Most of the Asian and Pacific clergy and religious sisters and brothers ministering in the United States received their training in their home countries, and several are here only on limited term assignments from their home dioceses or religious congregations. Their basic approaches to ministry may differ from those in the United States, reflecting various understandings of the role of the priest in the Catholic community, the role of lay leadership (particularly the role of women), the U.S. parish structure and sense of stewardship, devotional practices, and religious organizations. Some immigrant priests and religious have difficulty integrating into their new situation and connect more with their home diocese than with their U.S. diocese; they relate better to priests and religious from their own land than to priests and religious in their new land. To adapt to their new land and ministry requires time and a balanced approach. Dioceses can help by offering solid programs of hospitality, orientation, and continuous support.

Many Asian and Pacific priests and religious have quietly experienced deep frustration in their ministry in the United States. Some express a sense of isolation and loneliness and a lack of support from the diocese. To address this, several Asian and Pacific priests and religious associations have been formed and meet regularly. These organizations have helped in building morale, strengthening a missionary spirituality, and introducing their membership to American pastoral approaches.

Laity. "All lay people are missionaries; and the arena of their missionary work is the vast and complex worlds of politics, economics, industry, education, the media, science, technology, the arts and sport. In many Asian countries, lay people are already serving as true missionaries, reaching out to fellow Asians who might never have contact with clergy and religious."33 The enormous potential and charism of the laity as equal partners in the common mission of the Church cannot be emphasized enough. The ultimate responsibility for ministry with one's ethnic community belongs to the community itself, with the guidance of the local bishop. Through mutual cooperation, the Asian and Pacific communities can provide religious education for youth, care for the elderly, entrance into intercultural and interreligious dialogue, and care for the poor. Asian and Pacific Catholics have come of age and are not merely objects of the Church's pastoral care. Rather they have grown and should continue to grow as participating agents and coworkers in the apostolic mission of Jesus Christ. Parishes and dioceses should draw upon the Asian and Pacific communities as sisters and brothers in Christ, as important resources who contribute to the Church in the United States. Asian and Pacific peoples have much to contribute regarding close family ties, community, hospitality, inculturation, liturgy, lay ministry, subsidiarity, spirituality, and collaborative ministry at all levels.

Structure. Each immigrant group has sought to maintain its community—for Asian and Pacific groups this is particularly important. At the beginning of the twentieth century, bishops established personal parishes, and during the latter half of the century, many other structures were put into place. Now there are multicultural parishes, pastoral centers, ethnic liaisons and consultants, missions, and chaplaincies. Sometimes space for liturgy and/or programs is provided. And where communities are small, language resources limited, and the community scattered, a pastoral center or a roving chaplain provides the sense of a "home away from home." On the other hand, it is important to balance the community's need for a sense of security with the need to experience what it truly means to be Catholic in the local church with strong ties to the bishop.

Solidarity. A major challenge is overcoming national divisions and building an Asian and Pacific American solidarity that can be a unifying and solidifying force. Asian and Pacific groups have their own prejudices and biases among themselves and toward other ethnic groups. For Asian and Pacific communities a conversion that addresses historical animosities against former enemies within their own homelands or outside them is encouraged. The call of the Lord to a change of heart needs to be heeded by all.

Pastoral Responses

In the United States today awareness and loving concern on the part of many bishops for the presence and contributions of our Asian and Pacific Catholic sisters and brothers is growing. To continue to fully support the growth and maturity of our Asian and Pacific communities, we bishops recommend the following strategic actions:

  • That dioceses and parishes make every effort to welcome and to evangelize Asian and Pacific people and to share with them the Good News of Jesus Christ and the Catholic faith;

  • That in parish and diocesan ministries, Asian and Pacific communities be encouraged to participate as active caregivers, family evangelizers, advocates and promoters of priestly and religious vocations, and pastoral agents who contribute energies, idealism, and insights to the evangelization work "not just with worldly wisdom and efficiency, but with hearts renewed and strengthened by the truth of Christ"34;

  • That Asian and Pacific Catholic leadership explore the potential of Asian and Pacific pastoral institutes to offer continuing education to clergy, religious, and lay leaders in the United States; theological courses—especially in the area of liturgy—that present an Asian and Pacific perspective; orientation programs; catechetical materials; and language and intercultural skills training;

  • That Asian and Pacific Catholic leadership promote coalitions between Asian and Pacific communities and their organizations to build a strong advocacy network and establish solidarity. In addition, while structures to build ethnic identity and community strength are beneficial, they need to be complemented by structures of inclusion and communion with other communities in the multicultural local churches and especially with the local bishops. In this manner, the strengths of both diversity and unity can reinforce each other.

  • That Asian and Pacific church leaders explore together with the USCCB an appropriate national structure for Asian and Pacific Catholics that would give recognition, active voice, and official liaison with USCCB for the third millennium;

  • That dioceses and parishes fully explore the potential benefits of the threefold dialogue with religions, cultures, and the poor among Asian and Pacific communities by offering intercultural communication training opportunities for pastors, seminarians, leaders, and staff; encouraging ecumenical and interfaith prayer services with the various celebrations rotating among different religious worship facilities; encouraging social action offices to advocate on behalf of the human rights and dignity of immigrants, migrants, and refugees; and addressing the various forms of racial prejudice and discrimination within the Church and society at large;

  • That dioceses and parishes, where appropriate, develop mobile ministries to reach small and isolated Asian and Pacific Catholic communities;

  • That we bishops maintain systematic communication with the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences and the Federation of Catholic Bishops' Conferences of Oceania for

    1. theological developments in the Asian and Pacific context;

    2. policy developments for the exchange of ministers; and

    3. support of the evangelization work of Radio Veritas-Asia, a Catholic station based in Quezon City, Philippines, that broadcasts to Asia.