This article is eleventh in a series of articles about the religious life and customs of Asian/Pacific Catholics in the United States, and how the Church might better serve their pastoral needs. The article was submitted by Mr. Peter Choe of the Resource Center for Ethnic Youth and Young Adult Evangelization in Paramus, New Jersey.
There are approximately one million Korean-Americans in the United States, of which an estimated seven to eight percent are Catholic. In contrast, the Protestant Korean-American population is estimated to be over thirty percent of the population. Most Koreans came to this country from South Korea. Recently, the number of Korean-Chinese immigrants has increased visibly. The Korean-American population consists mostly of legal immigrants, foreign students at universities/colleges and high schools, employees sent to U.S.-based Korean corporations, and the undocumented. There is an insignificant number of Korean refugees in the United States.
Although over 140 Korean-American communities are spread out over thirty states, the majority of Koreans are in California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, North Carolina, and along the Baltimore-Washington Corridor. There are 100 communities with resident Korean-speaking priests, and forty communities served through mobile pastoral care of nearby Korean priests. There are over 100 exchange priests from Korea, twenty student priests, twenty-five U.S. ordained priests, thirty-two permanent deacons, and a substantially increased number of Korean seminarians in the major seminaries. Over eighty Korean religious sisters have come from Korea to work in the Korean-American parishes and communities.
Korean-American Catholic communities have been established mostly by lay people rather than by missionaries, a practice that resembles the establishment of the Church in Korea. The self-sustaining capability of Koreans is evidenced in their community building in the United States, and in revealing the interdependence of the immigrant situation. Koreans are engaged in a continual sociological reflection in this country. For example, each immigrant has to learn new patterns of morally correct behavior and new ways of personalizing their religious faith, which provides the motivation to strive to build a community. Koreans are more family- or community-oriented than nation-oriented. Building a community and sustaining it are very much like building and maintaining a family.
Such a characteristic may become problematic, especially with respect to integrating into a community at large in such a well-diversified country as the United States. For quite some years, Korean-American Catholics have been subject to criticism because of their unwillingness to mingle with other communities. This problem confronts Korean-American Catholics at a time when there is a scarcity of well-educated clergy and religious who have adapted to their new environment. This makes it more difficult for the current pastoral workers to provide a supportive network of social, educational, and liturgical institutions for the incorporation of the newer immigrants.
The new challenge to Korean-American Catholic communities is to understand their normal responsibility ot have specialized structures and strategies for community outreach and for building communities of faith in the context of integration into the community at large. It carries extremely important significance for the new generations of Korean-American Catholics who will have to make a contribution themselves to the Church as branches of the vine.
Korean-American Catholic communities maintain strong ties with the Church in Korea. This secures an adequate supply of Korean priests who can officiate at Catholic liturgies and devotional activities, provide Catholic education, and promote Catholic movements--all in the mother tongue. This demonstrates what a significant contribution of rich resources the Church in Korea makes to the U.S. Church's pastoral care of Korean-Americans.
Korean communities are very structured and organized. Each community is organized with many small cells divided according to region or town. The Parish Councils or Lay Councils are well-organized with many different subcommittees; these play an important leadership role in the community. Also, a variety of community activities are handled by small organizations which usually are grouped by age or by their devotion to saints, especially the Korean martyr saints.
In the United States, the Korean-American community has eight different regions which are supervised and guided by regional Korean-speaking priests' associations. The regions are as follows: Northern Pacific, Northern California, Southern California, Northern Central, southern Central, Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Southern. All eight regions are represented by the National Korean Pastoral Center.
Devotional activities and Catholic movements are widely practised by Koreans. The most popular of these activities and movements are the Legion of Mary, Curcillo, Marriage Encounter, Charismatic Renewal, and Ignatius Spirituality Training. Structured programs and group activities are commonly implemented. Devotion to the Blessed Mother is very popular and plays a substantially important role in developing and nurturing the Koreans' spirituality.
Age difference is an extremely important factor among Koreans. Respect for elders and seniority are strongly observed. However, the age factor becomes problematic in communication between different generations because the old Korean traditions conflict with American culture. Ministry with young people faces a great deal of difficulties and challenges because of this age factor. It is the most important issue among the first generation of Korean-Americans.
The importance of ministry with young people is highly recognized by the community. The demand for the development of ministry with Korean-American young people is overwhelmingly high because the community had tested and failed with many programs and strategies developed by both the Churches in the United States and in Korea. The communities' demand for programs and strategies must be based on the needs of the immigrant young Koreans. It is an encouraging sign that vocation development has been strongly promoted, resulting in substantial increases in the numbers of those enrolled in seminaries and those entering religious communities.