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Untold story
New pastoral on Asian- and Pacific-Americans sheds light on overlooked Catholics


The story is told of a young Japanese Catholic who lived in Los Angeles in 1912. Wanting to confess his sins, he wrote to his bishop in Hakodate, Japan, asking if it was possible to confess by registered mail and be pardoned in the same way. The U.S. church’s pastoral care to West Coast Japanese, it is said, originated with this incident.

Receiving the letter, the bishop of Hakodate requested assistance. The Maryknoll Catholic Foreign Mission Society responded, sending priests and women religious to Los Angeles in 1915 where they established Japanese schools and began to minister to Japanese immigrants.

The Los Angeles Maryknoll initiative marked a chapter in a much wider story about Asian and Pacific Catholics in America. The story, weaving through many nations, cultures, languages and beliefs, is one that has been largely overlooked, even as it has reshaped what it means to be Catholic in America today.

This is slowly changing now. After many years of prodding by Asian Catholics throughout America, after years of study, months of consultations, drafts and redrafting, the first pastoral letter on Asian and Pacific Catholic Americans is about to see the light of day.

Later this month the Committee on Migration in the Office for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees will submit to the U.S. bishops for their approval a pastoral letter titled, “Asian Pacific Presence: Harmony in Faith.”

The bishops are expected to approve the pastoral overwhelmingly, offering at least symbolic recognition to the fastest growing ethnic communities in America.

It is a document that raises important issues related to how the U.S. Catholic leadership envisions the church as it becomes ever more ethnically and racially diverse. The pastoral implicitly calls attention to some of the most fundamental questions facing the U.S. church, said one bishop staffer, who asked not to speak on the record until the pastoral reaches the full body of bishops. He and others who work on migration matters for the bishops have a solid sense of just how much the church in the United States has changed in the past quarter century.

We have come to a new paradigm and we must awaken to it, he said, asking, “Will the Asian and Pacific Catholics be placed in yet another side room with the Hispanics, African-Americans and Native Americans or will we now, finally, accept a new paradigm and let everyone into the living room together?”

How the U.S. bishops respond to this question and others raised in the proposed pastoral will have a major impact on the future of Catholicism in America. The responses bishops give could even reshape the very configuration of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as its pastoral directions in the years to come, according to U.S. bishops’ policy planners.

A long history

Asian- and Pacific-American Catholics go back more than two centuries in America. To get a sense of how the U.S. church got to this moment, it helps to look at some highlights mentioned in the pastoral so far:

As early as 1763, a Filipino settlement was established at St. Malo in the bayous of Louisiana. Known as “Manilamen,” the settlers jumped ship to escape brutalities during the galleon trade between the Philippines and Mexico.

In 1856, Bishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany, the first archbishop of San Francisco, invited a Chinese priest to minister to Chinese Catholic migrant laborers, some of whom worked on the U.S. transcontinental railroad.

In 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.

In the early 1920s, San Francisco Archbishop Edward J. Hanna founded the Catholic Filipino Club in Stockton, Calif., to provide hospitality to newcomers.

In the last half of the 20th century, Catholic migrations continued to our shores. The largest involved hundreds of thousands who left their homes in Southeast Asia in the wake of the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, tens of thousands of Catholics migrated to the United States. Still more came from Africa and from the Baltic states in the 1990s, fleeing hunger and violence.

Like other immigrants, Asian and Pacific Islanders have felt their share of racial discrimination. For example, as the pastoral points out, before the 1950s, Asian immigrants were denied the right to become naturalized citizens -- a right granted to all other U.S. immigrants. The Chinese Exclusion Law of 1882, which remained in effect until 1943, barred additional Chinese laborers from entering the country and prevented Chinese aliens from obtaining American citizenship. A 1909 law denied citizenship to 50,000 persons from Arabia because they were considered Asians. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, known as the “Japanese Exclusion Act,” banned further immigration of Japanese laborers. One of the more public acts of racial discrimination came in the form of 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 national security.

Of course, much has changed in the lifetimes of U.S. Catholic Asian- and Pacific-Americans who no longer face overt legal discrimination. What they more likely face today is prejudice that stems from ignorance and cultural misunderstanding, especially as their numbers grow.

The 2000 Census found that almost 12 million Asian-Americans now live in America, reflecting a growth of 48 percent since 1990. Further, The Asian- and Pacific-American population, the fastest-growing racial group in the country, is expected to double by 2010.

The six largest Asian groups -- Chinese, Filipino, Asian-Indian, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese -- account for 87.5 percent of Asian-Americans. Smaller Asian ethnic groups listed in the census include Bangladeshi, Cambodian, Hmong, Indonesian, Laotian, Malaysian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Taiwanese and Thai. Compared to the 12 million Asians, Pacific-Americans total 874,414, including native Hawaiians and American citizens from Guam, the Northern Marianas and American Samoa. The group also includes people from the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Tonga, and Western Samoa.

More than two-thirds of the Asian- and Pacific-American population lives in six states: California, Hawaii, Illinois, Texas, New Jersey and New York.

Thirty dioceses have more than 100,000 Asian- and Pacific-Americans in the cities they serve. Despite these numbers and the significant expansion of the Asian and Pacific Catholic population, these Catholics live mostly “invisible” lives within the larger church, according to the pastoral.

Lack of Asian-American bishops

One factor contributing to the low profile, according to the document, may be the lack of Asian-American bishops. Despite years of talk about the lack of Asian-American bishops within their ranks, not one Asian-American bishop has been appointed. This glaring absence means that at the highest level of decision-making, Asian Catholic voices do not get heard. Asian-American Catholics, not prone to complain aloud, quietly express disappointment and frustration.

“Today the Asian and Pacific communities in the United States … span several generations,” the pastoral states. “Yet Asian and Pacific peoples have remained, until very recently, nearly invisible in the church in the United States.” Their absence “in the episcopal leadership may be a factor.”

There is one exception. Among Asian and Pacific Catholics in America are a significant number who belong to Eastern-rite churches, churches that follow their own rites but express allegiance to Rome. Last July, the first Eastern Syro-Malabar-rite bishop of India was appointed to lead the estimated 120,000 U.S. followers.

“The [papal] nuncio wrote to [the U.S.] bishops five years ago asking for names,” Oakland Bishop Cummins told NCR, referring to the selection process for new bishops. Part of the problem, Cummins says, is the relatively young age of many of the Asian-American priests.

It is widely believed that ethnic diplomacy has slowed the process. Some observers think it would be inappropriate to appoint a Korean bishop without appointing, say, a Filipino bishop or a Vietnamese bishop. Cummins says any announcement would require “more than one” appointee. Some Asians would like to see as many as a half dozen appointed at the same time.

Cummins has been interested in Asian and Pacific Catholics living in America for some time. His diocese, with 473,687 such Catholics, boasts the fifth largest concentration among U.S. dioceses, following Los Angeles, Honolulu, Brooklyn and San Jose. Cummins’ interest took him to Asia in 1979. He has been the U.S. episcopal liaison to the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences since 1982.

Cummins, who headed the Committee on Migration from 1995 to 1998, has talked about the need for great Asian-American Catholic awareness among the bishops for at least a decade. He now says he is “gratified” that a pastoral recognizing the gifts of Asian- and Pacific-American Catholics is finally coming to life.

“I am high on this pastoral. It is a solid achievement,” he says.

Veronica Leasiolagi Barber, a native Samoan and Director for Asian and Pacific American Affairs for the Seattle archdiocese, is equally excited, saying the pastoral is “overdue.”

“It is timely to recognize our presence in the United States,” she said, explaining that Asian- and Pacific-American Catholics bring to the church needed “communal” values. “We are into doing things for others as community. This contrasts a bit the more individualistic approach we see here.”

Barber feels many Americans fail to recognize the size and importance of Asian and Pacific Catholics in this country. This pastoral, she hopes, will help.

“I had one person say to me recently, ‘We didn’t know that Asians are Catholics. We thought they were Buddhists,’ ” she said.

“Typical,” she responds, adding she wanted to blurt back a little-recognized fact that Asians carry in their back pocket: Jesus was an Asian!

Part of the enthusiasm Asian and Pacific Catholics increasingly feel about the church stems from the emphasis Pope John Paul II is giving to the importance of cultural awareness. Part of the preparation for the millennium Jubilee year of 2000 involved holding several regional synods during which local bishops came to Rome to discuss their needs with Vatican officials. These synods included one on Asia and another on Oceana, both held in 1998.

As a follow-up to the synod on Asia, the pope released a letter in November 1999 aimed at encouraging the local churches while trying to assure that they follow the Vatican emphasis on the proclamation of Jesus as universal savior.

In his letter, titled Ecclesia in Asia, the pope penned words that inspired the name and theme of the proposed pastoral. He wrote: “This ‘being Asian’ is best discovered and affirmed not in confrontation and opposition, but in the spirit of complementarity and harmony. In this framework of complementarity and harmony, the church can communicate the gospel in a way that is faithful both to her own tradition and to the Asian soul.”

In a way, U.S. bishops, by moving forward with the pastoral, face a bit of the same question: How to best mix complementarity with harmony? Or how to both preserve ethnic identity while responding to specific needs and at the same time preserve the harmonic whole? Barber, who was part of the pastoral planning team, says the bishops need to rethink their approach. The pastoral makes a series of recommendations, including one that calls “an appropriate national structure” to coordinate Asian and Pacific Catholic matters.

The recommendation falls short of asking for a “secretariat,” such as those that coordinate African-American and Hispanic affairs.

The bishops created a Secretariat for African American Affairs in 1987 and it opened in 1988. The U.S. Catholic Hispanic Affairs secretariat was officially created in 1972. The care of Asian- and Pacific-American Catholics has come under Migration and Refugee Services. With each passing decade, however, the notion of maintaining the care for Asian-American Catholics under Migration and Refugees becomes more problematic.

No longer newcomers

“What we in the Asian- and Pacific-American Catholic communities are saying is that we are no longer newcomers,” said Cecile Motus, coordinator for ethnic ministries in the U.S. bishops’ Office for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees. “We are saying that many of us have been here five and six generations and that our pastoral needs are beyond the responsibility of the department of migrants and refugees.”

Motus, who has worked on the pastoral -- and is proud of it -- adds that the answer for Asians and Pacific Catholics’ pastoral needs might not rest in creating yet another secretariat.

“We have given the bishops wiggle room,” she said. “What is needed is a whole new national restructuring, one that reflects the increasingly diverse multiethnic church we have become.” This is a view apparently shared by others in the Office of Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees.

The pastoral incorporates some of the thinking of the Asian bishops as it considers the ideas of dialogue and inculturation. Since the early 1970s, the Asian bishops have developed the notion of the “triple dialogue, a dialogue with religions, cultures and the poor, as a major motif in their pastoral approach.” The proposed pastoral, for the first time in a setting outside of Asia, draws on this approach.

The new pastoral follows in the wake of another, issued last November by the U.S. bishops, and called, “Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity.” That pastoral, also developed by the bishops’ committee on migration, celebrates U.S. “cultural pluralism,” what it calls “the common heritage of all Americans.”

“The presence of so many people of so many different cultures and religions in so many different parts of the United States has challenged us as a church to a profound conversion so that we can become truly a sacrament of unity,” the bishops wrote in the earlier pastoral. “We reject the anti-immigrant stance that has become popular in different parts of our country, and the nativism, ethnocentricity and racism that continue to reassert themselves in our communities.

“We are challenged to get beyond ethnic communities living side by side within our own parishes without any connection with each other. We are challenged to become an evangelizing church open to interreligious dialogue and willing to proclaim the gospel to those who wish to hear it.”

While “Unity in Diversity” called upon Catholics to open their minds and hearts to a changing church and nation, the new pastoral, “Harmony in Faith,” specifically recognizes the gifts of Asian and Pacific Catholics in America. Both come out of a broader theme the U.S. bishops are pushing to make the church in America more inclusive and more welcoming to all.

There are plans to translate the new pastoral into 11 Asian languages. Further, a series of regional training programs are being planned. Scheduled to begin later this month in New England, they are aimed at teaching diocesan leaders the importance of welcoming all people into their midst.

The pastoral ‘Harmony in Faith’ recommends the following strategic actions:
  • That Asian and Pacific communities become more active pastoral agents and evangelizers in parish and diocesan ministries.
  • That Asian and Pacific Catholic leadership explore the potential of Asian and Pacific pastoral institutes to offer continuing education to clergy and other pastoral ministers.
  • That Asian and Pacific Catholic leadership promote coalitions between Asian and Pacific communities to build a strong advocacy network.
  • That Asian and Pacific church leaders explore with the U.S. bishops an appropriate national structure for Asian and Pacific Catholics, with the goal of giving them more recognition and a greater voice.
  • 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 training programs and by encouraging social action work.
  • That dioceses and parishes, where appropriate, develop mobile ministries to reach small and isolated Asian and Pacific Catholic communities.
  • That U.S. bishops maintain systematic communication with the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences and the Federation of Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of Oceania.

Thomas C. Fox is NCR’s publisher. His e-mail address is tfox@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 9, 2001