WASHINGTON (December 3, 2001) -- Recognizing the growing Asian and Pacific presence in the Catholic Church in the United States, the nation's Catholic Bishops have approved their first pastoral statement on the topic and called for a stronger pastoral response to the needs of these diverse communities.
Asian and Pacific Presence: Harmony in Faith received final approval by a mail-in ballot of the membership of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The document was on the agenda of the Bishops' general meeting last month, but the absence of a quorum on the last day forced the USCCB to complete the vote by mail-in ballots. It passed on a 229-01 vote.
"We pray that this pastoral statement will facilitate a fuller appreciation of [the Asian and Pacific] communities in our local churches and will encourage Asian and Pacific Catholics to take on active leadership roles in every level of church life," the Bishops write.
To address the pastoral needs of Asian and Pacific Catholics, the Bishops recommend numerous diocesan and parish initiatives including the establishment of pastoral institutes where clergy and other pastoral ministers can receive continuing education; greater intercultural communications training; and the development of "mobile ministries" to reach small and isolated Asian and Pacific Catholic communities.
In describing the rich diversity within the Asian and Pacific community -- a diversity of ethnicity, language, culture, place of birth, religious tradition, and recency of arrival in the United States -- the statement suggests the description "Asian and Pacific" is deceptively oversimplified.
The definition of "Asian" used in the document encompasses 53 countries stretching from Mediterranean countries like Cyprus, Turkey and Israel in the west to Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia in the east. "Pacific," as defined in the statement covers the vast reaches of the planet's largest ocean to include 26 countries and territories like American Samoa, Guam and Tahiti, and lesser known places like the Yap Islands, part of the Federated States of Micronesia.
Taken together, Asians and Pacific Islanders speak hundreds of languages, embrace all of the world's major religions, and even within Catholicism belong to both Latin and Eastern Churches.
"In short, there are many Asian and Pacific communities and identities," the Bishops write. "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. ... Their challenge is that of diversity."
The statement provides a broad overview of the history of Christianity in Asia and the Pacific, and reminds readers that Jesus Christ himself was Asian. A similar overview of the presence of Asians and Pacific Islanders in what is now the United States notes that as early as 1763, a Filipino settlement had been established in the bayous of Louisiana.
The bishops trace the Church's early pastoral ministry to these communities to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To illustrate, Harmony in Faith recounts the story of a young Japanese Catholic living in Los Angeles in 1912 who could not locate a Japanese-speaking priest. Finally, he wrote to the Bishop of Hakodate, Japan, to ask whether it was possible to confess his sins and receive forgiveness by registered mail.
"The Church's pastoral care for the Japanese on the West Coast originated with this incident."
The statement acknowledges that while the numbers of Asians and Pacific Islanders within the Church in the United States are growing rapidly, their presence spans several generations.
"Yet Asian and Pacific peoples have remained, until very recently, nearly invisible in the Church in the United States," the bishops write. They said their tremendous increase in the general U.S. population and within the Catholic Church presents a "teaching moment" which prompted the preparation of Harmony in Faith.
The bishops celebrate the rich gifts offered by Asian and Pacific peoples to the Church in the United States. A substantial part of their statement highlights some of those gifts, including the high value placed on family and education, their profound spirituality and religiosity, their long tradition of lay leadership and the contributions of Asian and Pacific clergy and religious.
"Asian and Pacific Catholics have come of age and are not merely objects of the Church's pastoral care," the bishops write. "Rather, they have grown and should continue to grow as participating agents and coworkers in the apostolic mission of Jesus Christ. Parishes and dioceses should draw upon the Asian and Pacific communities as sisters and brothers in Christ, as important resources who contribute to the Church in the United States in moving in the direction of the Kingdom of God."
Asian and Pacific Presence: Harmony in Faith was presented to the members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops by Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of Camden (NJ), Chairman of the Bishops' Migration Committee, which developed the statement.