Asian and Pacific Presence: Harmony in Faith
A statement by the Committee on Migration. ©2001 USCCB
II. Harmony Among Diverse Realities
Homelands. Asian and Pacific Americans come from many
national backgrounds, speak many different languages, and encompass a
wide variety of physical and social characteristics. Their homelands
include fifty-three Asian countries and territories in geographic
regions commonly referred to as Near East (or Western Asia or Middle
East), Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia (see
Appendix D), as well as twenty-six Pacific Island states (see Appendix
E) of three indigenous population groups—Polynesians, Micronesians, and
Melanesians. 9 Two-thirds of the world's population live within this vast continent.
Language. Linguistically, Asian and Pacific communities are
even more diverse. Each country has its own language or languages. For
example, India has many languages as well as an official language,
Hindi, and China has more than one hundred dialects, which are distinct
spoken languages. The Philippines has eight major languages and
eighty-seven dialects. Indonesia's official language is Bahasa
Indonesia, but hundreds of other languages are used by distinct ethnic
groups such as the Balinese, Batak, Dayak, and Madurese. In the Pacific
Islands, French and English are commonly used as well as almost one
thousand indigenous languages. Asian languages are a source of unity and
joy for Asian ethnic communities when they gather among themselves.
Religion. The Asian continent is the birthplace of many of the
great religions of the world: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism,
in addition to Christianity. It is also the birthplace of other social
and religious traditions including Confucianism, Sikhism, and Taoism.
Ecclesia. The presence of Eastern Catholic churches brings an
ecclesial diversity. They are cultural as well as ecclesial minorities
struggling to maintain their identities. There are twenty-two Eastern
Catholic churches, most of which are represented by faithful and clergy
and, in many cases, hierarchies in the United States.
In short, there are many Asian and Pacific communities and identities.
Respect for the differences among the varied cultures is a significant
part of accepting our sisters and brothers into U.S. society and the
Church in the United States.
The Asian and Pacific American Population in the United States
The Asian and Pacific American population in the United States is growing rapidly. The almost twelve million 10
Asian Americans, as reported by Census 2000, reflect a growth of 48
percent since 1990, making them the fastest-growing racial group in the
country. The Asian American population is expected to double by 2010, 11
and the six largest Asian groups—Chinese, Filipino, Asian Indian,
Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese—account for 87.5 percent of Asian
Americans overall (see table one). Smaller Asian ethnic groups listed in
the census include Bangladeshi, Cambodian, Hmong, Indonesian, Laotian,
Malaysian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Taiwanese, and Thai.
Pacific Americans total 874,414, among which are U.S. citizens from
Hawaii, Guam, the Northern Marianas, and Samoa (American). It also
includes people from the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall
Islands, Palau, Tonga, and Western Samoa, among others.
The Asian and Pacific American population is present in large numbers
throughout the country. More than two-thirds of this population live in
six states: California, Hawaii, Illinois, Texas, New Jersey, and New
York (see table two). Thirty dioceses count more than 100,000 persons of
Asian and Pacific heritage.
Asian and Pacific American communities exhibit great complexities and
disparities. Their challenge is that of diversity—ethnicity, language,
culture, place of birth, religious tradition, recency of U.S. arrival,
and endowment of human capital. They are among the best endowed and yet
the least endowed of all Americans. They are among the best and least
educated. Many Asian and Pacific Americans are socially and economically
well integrated as a result of a tradition of up to five generations of
American citizenship. Some Asian and Pacific Americans enjoy the
advantages of having arrived lawfully as students or skilled workers or
with the support of family members who sponsored them. Yet others
struggle with inhumane conditions as irregular migrants in dead-end
jobs—if they have jobs at all. Some Asian Americans earn more than other
U.S. ethnic groups, while other Asian Americans do not receive even the
minimum wage. Low proportions of Asian and Pacific American households
receive income from public assistance or social security; yet some
households are clearly welfare-dependent.
Asian and Pacific Catholics in the United States
Except for the Filipinos, the majority of Asian and Pacific people in
the United States are followers of Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, and
Islam. Asian and Pacific Catholics have been present in the Church in
the United States since the beginning. The presence of Eastern Catholics
in the United States is primarily the result of late nineteenth-century
migration from Eastern Europe and the turmoil and upheaval in the
Middle East in the opening decades of the twentieth century. As Pope
John Paul II describes in Ecclesia in America, the sizeable
numbers of Eastern Catholics from the Middle East were added to the
Catholic population already in the United States including Eastern
Catholics from Europe:
This made it pastorally necessary to establish an Eastern Catholic
hierarchy for these Catholic immigrants and their descendants. . . .
Therefore, we cannot but rejoice that the Eastern Churches have in
recent times taken root in America alongside the Latin Churches present
there from the beginning, thus making the catholicity of the Lord's
Church appear more clear. 12
As early as 1763, a Filipino settlement had been established at Saint
Malo in the bayous of Louisiana. Known as "Manilamen," these settlers
jumped ship to escape brutalities during the galleon trade between the
Philippines and Mexico. They lived together, governing themselves and
living in peace and harmony. Although most were Catholics, a priest
rarely went to the village to minister to them. 13 In the
early 1920s, Archbishop Edward J. Hanna of San Francisco founded the
Catholic Filipino Club in Stockton, California, to provide hospitality
to newcomers. Among the Asian workers who toiled on the U.S.
transcontinental railroad and among the agricultural workers who opened
up the American West were Catholics deeply rooted in their faith. In
1856, Joseph Sadoc Alemany, OP, the first archbishop of San Francisco,
invited a Chinese priest to minister to the Chinese migrant laborers. On
December 9, 1884, the Paulist fathers took over the administration of
Old St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco to begin a mission to the
Chinese that continues to the present day. To strengthen the apostolate
to the Chinese, in 1884 San Francisco's Archbishop Patrick Riordan
invited the Helpers of the Holy Souls Sisters (now known as the Society
of Helpers) in St. Louis, Missouri, "to establish a foundation in San
Francisco to help the poor, the immigrants, and the Chinese." 14
In 1912, finding no one who spoke his language, a young Japanese
Catholic in Los Angeles wrote to the Bishop of Hakodate, his hometown in
Japan, to ask whether it was possible to confess his sins by registered
mail and be pardoned in the same way. The Church's pastoral care for
the Japanese on the West Coast originated with this incident. At the
request of the Bishop of Hakodate, the Maryknoll Catholic Foreign
Mission Society sent their priests and women religious to Los Angeles in
1915 to establish Japanese schools and orphanages, where many children
of Japanese immigrants, American citizens by their birth on U.S. soil,
would encounter Catholicism through education both in English and
Today the number of Asian and Pacific Catholics in the United States
presents a difficult and complex question. Hard data are difficult to
obtain or are non-existent. Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza has pointed out
that "Catholics from Asia, especially from the Philippines and Vietnam,
make up the third largest group of people of color and account for about
2.6 percent of the Catholics in the United States." 15
One way to estimate the number of Asian and Pacific Catholics in this
country is to look at the percentages of Catholics in their homelands.
These percentages range from 8 percent in Korea to 85 percent in East
Timor (see table three). While the percentages are small, the numbers
may be large—for example, less than one percent in China are Catholic,
but this percentage represents about ten million Catholics. It is also
worth noting that the Philippines is home to the third largest Catholic
population in the world, after Brazil and Mexico. 16
Today the Catholic Church in Korea exhibits the highest annual adult
baptism rate in the world, a trend also true among Korean Americans.
Korean Catholics have a strong sense of mission, sending missionaries to
various parts of the world.
Vietnamese Catholics in the United States—who have blessed the Church
in the United States with many priests and religious—are estimated to
number 300,000, or 30 percent of Vietnamese Americans. The percentage of
Catholics in Vietnam, however, is only 8 percent because many Catholics
left Vietnam as refugees during the war.
Pacific Islanders have a high percentage of Catholics in the homelands.
Samoans are 22 percent Catholic, while in the Marianas 84 percent are
Many Asian and Pacific Islanders—native-born and immigrants—belong to
the Eastern Catholic churches. Accurate figures for the number of
Eastern Catholics originating in Asia are likewise difficult to
determine. It is estimated that there are 500,000 faithful from the
Armenian, Chaldean, Maronite, Melkite, and Syriac churches, which
include Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara, in the United States.
While the number of Asian and Pacific Catholics as a percentage of U.S.
Catholics may be small, many Asian and Pacific Islander non-Catholics
have attended Catholic schools and have been the recipients of services
offered by the numerous and well-respected social programs conducted by
local churches, Caritas, and other international Catholic organizations
in their countries of origin. In Hong Kong, for instance, one-third of
the children graduate each year from Catholic schools. In other
countries, Catholic schools are the preferred institutions of learning.
John Paul II explains further, "Throughout Asia, the Church's
involvement in education is extensive and highly visible. . . . Catholic
schools play an important role in evangelization, inculturating the
faith, teaching the ways of openness and respect, and fostering
interreligious understanding." 17 Because the graduates of
these educational systems carry a great deal of influence, it is
important for evangelization and outreach to continue the ties that have
already been established. The challenge in the United States is then to
strengthen that Catholic connection.
The Growing Role of Leaders
Leaders are emerging from among Asian and Pacific peoples here in the
United States. Among them are two governors, a U.S. senator, several
representatives in the U.S. Congress, and cabinet members. There are
also Nobel Prize winners, U.S. Olympic athletes, national sports
champions, respected scholars and scientists, information technology
entrepreneurs, hundreds of thousands of professional managers, and small
The Church is blessed with Asian and Pacific pastors, social workers,
educators, diocesan directors, and lay leaders who are actively and
selflessly contributing to building the Kingdom of God in this country.
The number of Asian and Pacific Catholics who have been given
responsibility in church structures or are well known in their fields of
endeavor is growing. Among them are a mother general of a community of
women religious, the president of the Catholic Theological Society of
America, the former chair of the National Advisory Council of the United
States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and a Maronite priest elected as
the first Eastern Catholic president of the Canon Law Society of
Following the Witness of Martyrs
Besides these living role models, Asian and Pacific Catholics come to
the United States with a long heritage of extraordinary witness of life
and martyrdom. The Church recently recognized many Asian saints and
martyrs; however, the total number of saints and martyrs could fill an
entire Asian and Pacific Litany of Saints.
From India, Gonsalo Garcia was canonized in 1629 and John de Brito in
1947. More recently, Pope John Paul II beatified Blessed Joseph Vaz in
From Japan the heroic witness of St. Paul Miki and his companions,
including Gracia Hosakawa, Ludivico Ibaragi, Michael Kozaki, and
Takayama Ukon, have been honored by the Church.
The Church in Korea suffered more than 10,000 martyrdoms. In 1984, Pope
John Paul II canonized 103 martyrs in Seoul. Outstanding among those
saints are St. Andrew Kim Taegon, the first native Korean priest, and
Chung Hasang and Kim Hyoim, who were heroic lay leaders.
The Philippines' first martyr, San Lorenzo Ruiz de Manila, was
canonized in 1987. Catechist Pedro Calungsod was beatified in 2000.
It is estimated that more than 130,000 Vietnamese Catholics died for
Christ's sake during persecutions from 1625 to 1886. On June 19, 1988,
Pope John Paul II canonized 117 of them, including St. Andrew Dung Lac,
St. Phanxico Xavier Can, St. Vincent Diem, St. Phaolo Le Bao Tinh, St.
Phero Nguyen Khac Tu, and a woman, St. Agnes Le Thi Thanh. On March 5,
2000, Blessed Andrew the Catechist was beatified by Pope John Paul II in
Also on March 5, 2000, Blessed Nicholas Bunlert Kitbamrung, the Thai Church's first martyr priest, was beatified.
From China, 120 martyrs were canonized by Pope John Paul II on October
1, 2000. Of these, thirty-three were foreign missionaries and
eighty-seven were native Chinese, including Ahan Wen Lan, Pei Xio, Zhan
Da Pun, Liu Shui Tin, Cao Gul Ying, Liu Wen Yuen, and Liu Han Zhou.
Among the many Eastern Catholic martyrs and saints are Blessed Mary of
Jesus Crucified, born of a Syrian family in Galilee, who was beatified
in 1983; Blessed Joseph Kassab Hardini, who was beatified in 1998; and
from India, Blessed Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Blessed Alphonsa
Muttathupadath, who were beatified in 1986, and St. Marian Theresia, who
was canonized in April 2000.
Experiencing Racial Discrimination
Part of the sad reality for minorities and many immigrants—among them
Asian and Pacific Islanders—to the United States is racial
discrimination and prejudice. Racially restrictive laws have ranged from
those that affect all non-white populations, including Asian and
Pacific groups, to those that target specific Asian groups. Prior to the
1950s, Asian immigrants were denied the right to become naturalized
citizens—a right granted to all other immigrants to the United States.
Laws in many states forbade marriages between non-whites (including
Asians) and whites, although social pressures were probably the major
impediment to interracial marriages. The Chinese Exclusion Law of l882,
which remained in effect until 1943, barred additional Chinese laborers
from entering the United States and prevented Chinese aliens from
obtaining American citizenship. A 1909 law denied citizenship to 50,000
persons from Arabia because they were considered Asians. Japanese
laborers were brought to the United States in lieu of Chinese laborers
until 1907, when the Gentlemen's Agreement with Japan curtailed Japanese
immigration temporarily; and the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, known as the
"Japanese Exclusion Act," banned immigration of Japanese laborers.
Perhaps the most tragic instance of racial discrimination was Executive
Order 9066 of 1942, which forced Japanese immigrants, including
two-thirds who were American citizens mainly from the west coast, into
internment camps under the guise of military necessity. This experience
cannot be described without noting the heroic efforts of many religious,
such as the Maryknoll fathers, brothers, and sisters, who accompanied
the Japanese internees to the camps and stayed with them. Without such
loving ministry, many Japanese American Catholics might have felt
abandoned and left their Catholic faith.
While legal provisions have changed, discriminatory actions by
individuals and groups sadly perdure. Throughout history, Asians in the
United States, native-born and immigrant, have been characterized as
"permanent aliens," a race of foreigners given externally imposed labels
and racial identities and only referred to in passing or even omitted
altogether in classic immigration history. Asian and Pacific
contributions in building the nation have been mostly unrecognized and
ignored. The recent episodes of racial attacks against Asian persons and
businesses in Los Angeles and Detroit are tragic reminders of the
ongoing need for conversion against any form of racial discrimination.
Some Asian immigrant groups are still relegated to jobs that pay low
wages, require them to work long hours, and provide substandard working
conditions and unfair labor practices. To escape from such exploitative
conditions, some Asian entrepreneurs resort to establishing small
businesses in their own communities, sometimes with the help of
affirmative action programs, through which Asian and Pacific Americans
also have obtained college and advanced degrees.