The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Cultural Diversity in the Church is conducting a national study to better understand the pastoral needs of Asian and Pacific Island (API) Catholic communities in the United States. This study is one of the first steps in developing a national cultural plan for U.S. Asian and Pacific Island Catholics.
A team of sociologists, the USCCB’s Asian Pacific Island Affairs Subcommittee, and Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) are conducting the study. It includes an online questionnaire in 14 languages, focus groups and interviews with pastoral leaders and parishioners.
Addressing a need
“We wanted to study what are the particularities of this group, because they are so diverse. There are so many nationalities and identities involved,” said Mar Muñoz-Visoso, the executive director of the Secretariat for Cultural Diversity in the Church. “We need to understand those peculiarities in order to provide an adequate pastoral response.”
Since changes in U.S. immigration law after 1965 increased the arrival of migrants from around the world, the Catholic Church in the United States has seen a rise in the Asian population. Muñoz-Visoso said that there is a pressing need to have a clear picture of who are the members of this diverse population, highlighting census data that shows Asians, in 2012, were the fastest-growing minority group in the country.
“Overall the largest (minority) group is the Hispanics, but in terms of percentage of growth, Asians and Pacific Islanders are showing a very interesting trend,” Muñoz-Visoso said. “We also discovered that even though Christians in Asia and the Pacific Islands sometimes are a small minority, many of the ones that immigrate to the United States are Christians.”
Nearly 20 percent — or 2.9 million — of U.S. residents who self-identify as Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander are estimated to be Catholic, according to a 2014 CARA report analyzing cultural diversity in the Catholic Church.
Tricia Bruce, associate professor of sociology at Maryville College in Tennessee and one of the social scientists leading the project, said the study will involve community members who minister to Catholics of Asian and Pacific Island descent as well as the multitude of communities that form this demographic.
“When we are talking about Asians and Pacific Islanders, we are talking about an immense level of diversity,” Bruce said. “We want to capture the voices of API Catholics of varying ages, ethnicities and experiences. We want to see where they see the Church going and what they see is one of their greatest needs.”
Bruce’s previous research includes the sociology of religion, social movements, Catholicism, personal parishes and immigration. Other sociologists co-leading this research are Jerry Park, an associate professor at Baylor University and an affiliate fellow of the Baylor Institute for Studies on Religion, and Stephen Cherry, who teaches at the University of Houston-Clear Lake and has recently published a book about Filipino Catholics.
Bishop Randolph Calvo of Reno, Nevada, chairman of the Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Island Affairs, invited parishioners and pastoral leaders (such as bishops, pastors and lay volunteers) to participate in the study, which will be a guideline on how the Church can address the needs of Asian and Pacific Island Catholics and acknowledge their sustained contributions to the life of the U.S. Church.
“Today, the Church continues to be enriched by the presence and growth of people of Asian and Pacific Island descent who now constitute 6 percent of the overall United States population,” Bishop Calvo stated in a news release. “They represent a wide diversity of groups and cultures. Some are new immigrants, others are well-established, and an increasing number are U.S. born. Some come from distant lands and others, such as Hawaiians or Guamanians, are native to the U.S.”
One of the challenges of this study, Bruce said, was figuring out how to elicit responses from a population that is so diverse linguistically and culturally, in terms of age, generation and education.
“We want to capture that diversity, while recognizing that there are some patterns,” Bruce said. “This is a population that merits attention, given their growth, but also given their minority status in terms of size in the U.S. Church. They have some particular needs that others don’t share.”
The questions from the Asian and Pacific Islanders’ study touch upon many factors: demographics; spiritual life; parish involvement; liturgy; sacraments; leadership formation; the extent different populations are integrated; how these Catholics identify themselves; how they think they are perceived; their contributions to the Church; and how they build families and communities. Participants can also address open-ended questions to elicit conversations about the groups’ different needs.
Several dioceses and parishes have formed ministries to serve the waves of Asian immigrants who arrived in their areas — the majority of whom are Filipino, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Native Hawaiian, Indian and Japanese. Ways to address these communities’ spiritual needs include facilitating Masses in different languages and being aware and accepting of certain expressions of faith or devotions that run deep, such as novenas, pilgrimages, charitable works, conferences and other activities that honor cultural traditions important to their faith.
Muñoz-Visoso said that the wide scope of the survey is trying to prevent small communities from falling through the cracks. Through ministering to these populations, the Church seeks to best welcome them, assist them and provide a way for each culture to be invested in the other.
Redemptorist Father Vang Cong Tran, who has been working with groups of Burmese and Montagnard immigrants in North Carolina since 2008, said that “visiting a small community lets them know that the Church cares for them; that they deserve to be loved and respected.”
When he received permission to minister to these populations in their language, Father Tran tried to congregate all the different Burmese and Montagnard groups as one community of faith, but most of the new immigrants from this community lacked transportation or money to travel. Now, he celebrates monthly Mass for these communities in Charlotte, Raleigh and Winston-Salem.
“They try to participate in the liturgy of the American Church, but they live their faith in their language,” Father Tran said. “Culture and tradition is very crucial for the Montagnard and for the Burmese. They have a small non-Catholic community that celebrate their own traditions, and that is very inviting to those who don’t have a Mass they can feel is their own at the beginning.”
Other groups of Asian and Pacific Island Catholics who have been in the country for generations have different needs, such as the promotion of religious vocations, evangelization and social justice causes. Other groups, like the growing Korean-American population in St. Paul Chong Ha-Sang Church in Flushing, New York — one of the largest Korean Catholic parishes in the country — needed a larger space to host the community’s many ministries. The Father Thomas Jung Education Center, a space for the parish’s 3,000 families, opened last summer, according to the Brooklyn diocesan newspaper, The Tablet.
Father Albert Avenido, moderator and chaplain of the Filipino Ministry in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said his ministry tries to integrate the Filipino community to parish life, with many Filipino-Americans participating in the leadership of the parish.
“We have a large number of volunteers who are very generous with their time,” he said. “So formation and leadership training is important to empower the leadership.”
He added that even though Filipino first- and second-generation immigrants can easily blend and collaborate with new communities, they also have a need to connect with their traditions and share them with Filipino youth.
“During (last) Advent, 124 parishes celebrated at least one night of Simbang Gabi (a novena of night Masses leading to Christmas Eve),” Father Avenido said. “The ministry tries to share the gift of faith of the Filipino communities in every parish.”
Bruce expects to finish collecting data in the spring and to submit the results of the study and recommendations for the bishops by August 2015. Her team will present its findings during a USCCB conference in Baltimore in November.
“The subcommittee, the bishops and secretariat on cultural diversity are very mindful in wanting to have as much grass-roots participation as possible,” Bruce said. “We want the voices of API Catholics to really guide this conversation with regards to the national (pastoral) plan.”
Maria-Pia Negro Chin writes from New York.