Asian and Pacific Presence: Harmony in Faith
A statement by the Committee on Migration. ©2001 USCCB
III. Sharing Gifts and Promoting Harmony
From its inception, the United States of America has been enriched by the gifts brought to its shores from countries and cultures the world over. Likewise, the Catholic Church in the United States has been blessed by the traditions of Catholics from almost every nation on earth.
In 1997 the contributions of Asian and Pacific communities were presented during a consultation for the bishops' Committee on Migration, which stated,
We believe strongly that this is a moment of special grace for the Catholic Church in the United States. As Asian Pacific communities, we bring a strong sense of family with a loving respect for the elderly and a profound and fervent religious faith. We contribute a spirituality which is eastern [and] rooted in Asian Pacific cultures. We also seek to live in harmony with each other and with the whole of creation. We deepen and challenge our understanding of the meaning of the universal Church, enabling all of us to be a church which is complete and whole.18
This Church that is complete and whole brings to fulfillment the gifts of the Asian and Pacific people:
To bear witness to Jesus Christ is the supreme service which the Church can offer to the peoples of Asia, for it responds to their profound longing for the Absolute, and it unveils the truths and values which will ensure their integral human development. . . . [The Church has sought to discover] the Asian countenance of Jesus [in light of] the universal saving significance of the mystery of Jesus and his Church.19
Harmony Is Asian and Christian
Harmony is central to the lives and cultures of Asian and Pacific communities. According to the bishops of Asia, "harmony embodies ‘the realities of order, well-being, justice and love as seen in human interaction. . . . Harmony is not simply the absence of strife. . . . The test of true harmony lies in acceptance of diversity and richness.'"20
Typically, harmony in the family binds generations together for the spiritual formation of the young. Culturally, the traditional arts of many Asian and Pacific societies link a person's actions with grace in society. Most of the time, harmony is characterized as well by a deep spirit of courtesy—a recognition that human solidarity derives from all persons' common relationship to God, who is the source of all life.
Harmony is authentically Christian and intrinsically Asian. Harmony draws its inspiration and strength from the harmonious relationship of the Trinity. Asians and Pacific Islanders teach a threefold harmony: (1) harmony with a personal God, the source of all genuine harmony; (2) harmony among all people; and (3) harmony with the whole universe. It is, according to Pope John Paul II in his address of May 13, 1981, "an integral part of the Christian concept of life"; he said that harmony's "object is: the sacred dignity of human person, the image of God; its purpose: the realization of justice as the advancement and liberation of the human person; its foundation: the truth about human nature, learned from reason and illuminated by revelation; and its propelling power: love as the Gospel commandment and norm of action."21
Family and Education Are Central
For most peoples, the family is of the highest value. Asian and Pacific cultures place a particular emphasis on loyalty to one's family. Asian and Pacific families affirm many basic family values including love, integrity, honesty, thrift, and mutual support. Respect for elders and authority and sacrifice for children figure prominently in shaping their experiences. Harmony is crucial, along with the notion that the individual must sacrifice his or her interests to serve the greater needs of the group, which may be the state, the community, or, especially, the family.
Faith is an important element of life. For Catholics of Asian and Pacific heritage, Catholic identity is intimately connected with family and local community. Parents and grandparents are the primary teachers of gospel values and nurturers of the faith among the young. Vocations to ministry are fostered in the family.
After the family, education is most valued by Asian and Pacific peoples. Thirty-eight percent of Asians in the United States have bachelor's degrees or higher education, compared with 20 percent of the total population. For example, among Asian Indian men, 66 percent have a bachelor's or higher degree.22
Profound Spirituality and Popular Piety
Asian and Pacific Catholic Americans and immigrants migrated with the experience and sensibilities of the great religions and spiritual traditions of the world—Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Shintoism, Sikhism, Taoism, and Zoroastrianism—together with Christianity. Their experience of the great religions and spiritual traditions teaches them to live with a profound sense of the sacred, a holistic approach to life and salvation, and a spirituality adapted to their needs and a life-giving vitality. Indeed the Holy Father said on April 19, 1998, "We want to listen to what the Spirit says to the churches of Asia that they may proclaim Christ in the context of Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism and all those currents of thought and life which were already rooted in Asia before the preaching of the Gospel arrived."23
Even though many Christian immigrants from Asia have suffered persecution in their homelands, we are mindful that their popular piety has roots in their Asian spiritual traditions. Their experience demonstrates the values of these religions and spiritual traditions, and how these values await their fulfillment in the revelation of Jesus Christ.
In the small traditional communities from which these Christians come, authority has a predominant place in the Church. Priests and religious hold positions of respect. The elders of the community are also the leaders of the parish community.
The Church is experienced not only as a place for public worship but also as a community where family and friends can find personal warmth and caring, where there is sharing of pains and joys, where there is constant sharing around the table of friendship. These communal activities are celebrated around the seasons and feasts of the church year, feasts in honor of the saints, and popular devotions. The sacramental celebrations of baptism, confirmation, first communion, marriage, and funerals are not only religious milestones, but also occasions for gathering and strengthening bonds of family and friendship.
Asian and Pacific immigrants bring popular devotions from their homelands and share them with fellow parishioners. Many in the United States sustain their faith through devotions to Mary and the saints. Asian and Pacific Catholics have a special love and affection for the Blessed Virgin Mary, revering her as their own mother and the Mother of Christ, and holding many vibrant celebrations in her honor. Throughout Asia are thousands of Marian sanctuaries and shrines where not only Catholic faithful gather, but also followers of other religious traditions. Muslims particularly honor Mary in the Qur'an.
A Long Tradition of Lay Leadership
Even before the Second Vatican Council, Asians entering the Church in their homelands were imbued with the understanding that the mission of the laity is crucial to the growth of the Church. Partly because of her recent mission-based history, the Catholic Church in Asia and the Pacific Islands emphasizes the baptismal call to mission for all members of the Church. Church leaders place great importance on lay leadership and the active role of women. Many Asian and Pacific Catholics who migrated to this country came with a rich experience of being active lay members and ministers of the Church.
Catholicism in Korea, for example, has a unique history. It began through the initiative of Korean Confucian scholars in 1784 who had visited China and became Christians after reading Christian texts found in Beijing. Korean laity not only kept the faith alive but also shared it with others until the first missionaries arrived in 1836. In Japan, from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, lay Catholics similarly kept the faith alive while the country was closed to Christian missionaries.
Many Asian and Pacific communities are familiar with the term "catechist." Catechists are people of strong faith, well trained in the basics of the Catholic faith, and well respected as religious leaders in the community. They are also sent to remote villages to gather the people in prayer and to teach catechism. In some areas of the Philippines, lay liturgical ministers regularly hold weekend para-liturgical services in capillas, chapels in the remote barrios, that might be visited by the clergy only a few times each year.
Lay persons are the primary evangelizers in many parts of Asia and the Pacific Islands. And the tradition lives on among many Asian and Pacific lay leaders now in the United States. In parishes where they are invited, encouraged, and nurtured, they have been active pastoral ministers for many decades. Asian and Pacific lay leaders share their joy and talents in almost all avenues of lay ministries—the liturgy, hospitality, social services, and parish and diocesan leadership.
The Contributions of Clergy and Religious
Many priests and religious sisters and brothers from Asia and the Pacific minister to the Church in the United States. Most not only serve their ethnic groups, but also are pastors and associates in parishes, and teachers and principals of Catholic schools throughout the country. In many instances, Asian and Pacific priests and religious have established parish religious education programs in their native languages. Volunteer teachers in these programs are usually from particular ethnic groups; for instance, Hmong, Samoan-speaking, and Tongan priests, religious, and deacons often work with lay leaders in family evangelization programs.
Vocations are quite high in Asian and Pacific American communities both in number and in proportion to the current population. In 1999, 9 percent of those ordained to the priesthood in the United States were of Asian or Pacific heritage, yet Asian and Pacific persons composed only 2.6 percent of the Catholic population in the United States.
The Heritage of the Eastern Churches
The Eastern Churches, principally of the Middle East and India, merit special attention. "From Apostolic times they have been the custodians of a precious spiritual, liturgical and theological heritage. Their traditions and rites, born of a deep inculturation of the faith in the soil of many Asian countries, deserve the greatest respect."24
Although their own priests served some of the Eastern Catholic faithful from Asia, the faithful were under the jurisdiction of the local Latin Church bishops until the 1966 appointment of the Maronite and Melkite bishops. Bishops were later appointed to serve other communities. The appointment of bishops to serve the Armenian, Chaldean, Syrian, and, most recently, the Syro-Malabar churches followed.
Today the eparchies and exarchates of patriarchal or metropolitan sui iuris churches in the United States include the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn and Our Lady of Lebanon in Los Angeles for the Maronite Catholics; the Eparchy of Newton, Massachusetts, for the Melkite Greek Catholics; the Eparchy of Our Lady of Deliverance in Newark, New Jersey, for Syrian Catholics; the Armenian Catholic Exarchate of the U.S.A. and Canada with parishes in several states; the Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle of Detroit for the Chaldean Catholics; and the most recent Eparchy of St. Thomas in Chicago for the Syro-Malabar Catholics.