Each month the BYTE will publish sections of the U.S. Bishops Pastoral Letter “Encountering Christ in Harmony: A Pastoral Response to Our Asian and Pacific Island Brothers and Sisters.”
While Christianity has been in India since the time of the Apostle Thomas, the majority of Asian countries encountered Christianity in the Middle Ages and later. This was the time when European and Asian missionaries entered China, Japan, Vietnam, and the Pacific Islands. The missionaries encountered people spiritually engaged with their own distinctive traditions and culture. They met people who took great pride in their festivals, rituals, and communal observances.
Historically, the majority of Asian and Pacific countries have at some point been colonized by another entity, be it from Europe, America, or Asia. The colonial and missionary history influenced the way these countries related to external forces and also how they adapted to change.
European missionaries brought Christianity to many of these countries; some Asian and Pacific Islanders embraced the new religion, and others did not. Colonialism is a highly complicated and charged topic in Asian and Pacific history, and the attitudes attendant on colonial history are not easily changed and need to be acknowledged. Colonialism is part of the complexity of Asian and Pacific Islander identity that needs further discussion beyond the scope of this pastoral response.
In the majority of Asian countries or territories, Christianity is a minority religion, with Catholics making up an even smaller part of the Christian population. While the Pacific Islands population is mostly Christian, Catholics are still the minority.
Exceptions to this norm are Catholics from the Philippines, Timor-Leste, Wallis and Futuna, and Guam, where Catholics form the largest religious group. The Philippines and Timor-Leste both have a high percentage of Catholics, 93 percent and 96 percent, respectively. They have proportionally more Catholics than any other Asian country or Pacific island. In fact, these percentages are higher than any other country in the world. Furthermore, in the United States, Filipino Americans who self-identify as Roman Catholic represent three quarters of all Asian and Pacific Island Catholics in this country.
As Asian and Pacific Islanders migrate to the United States, their identity as Catholics continues to be shaped by their colonial and missionary history, as well as by their encounter with the diversity present in U.S. culture. For many Asian and Pacific Island Catholics, whether they were born in the United States or are immigrants, their religious identity is intricately woven into their cultural upbringing. For them, being Catholic is part of being Asian and Pacific Islander. It is important, then, when discussing the identity of Asian and Pacific Island Catholics, to recognize how religion and culture are so intimately intertwined. Even though this may be more apparent for first-generation immigrants, the second and subsequent generations have also inherited part of this identity construction.
In US society, Asian and Pacific Islanders are sometimes assumed to be practitioners of Eastern or South Asian religions, or perhaps new converts from an indigenous or animist tradition. Because of such stereotyping, some Asian and Pacific Islanders may find that society lumps them together as being religiously “other” and thus not truly Catholic Christians. This may contribute to a feeling of being invisible, hidden, rejected, and marginalized in US society and even in the Church. Consequently, some Asian and Pacific Island Catholics may feel that they have to constantly defend and legitimize their long history of Catholicism.
It is crucial to underscore that Asian and Pacific Island Catholics are made up of ethnically, racially, culturally, nationally, and socially diverse groups of people that share a single faith, one that is universal in confession and particular in expression. These particular expressions are apparent in their worship practices and liturgical celebrations. From Advent novena Masses of Simbang Gabi (“night Masses”) celebrated by Filipinos, to the liturgical and devotional activities that occur during the Asian Lunar New Year, celebrated by Chinese (Xin or Chun Jie), Korean (Seollal), Laotian (Pi Mai), and Vietnamese (Tet) communities, many have incorporated cultural elements into their Catholic worship. The bright colors and intricate designs found in Asia and the Pacific Islands are wrapped around church walls and pews as well as worn by the people. These colors and cultural motifs are a reminder of the inclusive nature of Catholic worship.
Other practices that communities incorporate are the inclusion of Asian and Pacific Island saints during the chanting of the Litany of Saints as well as the display of a statue or image of the Blessed Virgin Mary adorned with local native dress. By doing this, many Asian and Pacific Island communities are able to incorporate Mary into their particular ethnic identity. In art, she has taken on Asian characteristics and Pacific Island features. Through prayers, she is called upon to intercede on behalf of the people. She is the nurturing caretaker of a people whose identity is grounded deeply in their faith and culture. A myriad of liturgical and devotional practices can stress the deep encounter of faith in a loving God who is glorified in diversity.
For many Asian and Pacific Island Catholics, their religious identity is best expressed through their native tongue. Home country language is a vital part of who they are. It is not only a way to communicate, but it also gives expression to the depth of their being. Just as religion is essential to their lives, language is an identity marker that accentuates the character and personality of Asian and Pacific Islanders. It is distinctive, especially when cultural expressions are not translatable into English and must remain expressed in their original language. Some examples include:
Chit sa go shay zay, mone sa go toe zay, a Burmese adage “to not dwell on hatred but on harmony”
Kin kao len bo?, a Laotian expression of hospitality that asks whether the person has eaten rice already
Aia ke ola i ka waha; aia ka make i ka waha, a Hawaiian saying that means, “Spoken words can enliven; spoken words can destroy.”
Just as language is a distinctive social marker for Asian and Pacific Islanders, physical appearance may further contribute to distinctions, and these distinctions can sometimes be negative due to racism. Combatting racism requires not only changes in attitude and overcoming prejudices but also challenging social structures that subtly embody and reinforce racism. While the experience of racism is not unique to any one ethnic group, two important examples in Asian American history include the Chinese Exclusionary Act in 1882 and the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. For many Asian and Pacific Catholics, the reality of being linguistically or physically different from the larger US population is a constant reminder of their marginalized status. No matter the degree to which they integrate into mainstream culture, racial presumptions may continue to affect them. It should be noted that Asian and Pacific Island communities also add to the United States racial discourse when they discriminate against each other (e.g., due to class distinctions, socio-cultural groups, or ethnicity).
To further understand through the lens of identity the racial barriers that Asian and Pacific Islanders face, it is important to highlight how they are sometimes portrayed as being “unobtrusive,” “submissive,” and “hard-working,” i.e., as ‘model minorities.’ These stereotypes, in addition to being inaccurate, contribute to a perception of being “invisible.” As a result, many Asian and Pacific Islanders feel left out of US racial discourses that, more often than not, include whites, blacks, Native Americans, and Hispanics/Latinos. Asian and Pacific Island communities need to be included in these discourses.
Just as racism exists in the larger society, such dynamics can also be found within the Church. Even though the Church has taken steps to address the issue of racism, some Asian and Pacific Island Catholics feel they are not being recognized or included within their own parish and/or diocese based on negative stereotypes, thus perpetuating the perception of hiddenness or invisibility. Decisions are made for them on the presumption that they will follow obediently what is asked, without causing any problems or neglecting their responsibilities, and that they will do their utmost to uphold harmony. Asian and Pacific Island Catholics need to remind the larger ecclesial communities that all are invited to the table. As St. Paul advocates, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). In addition, all are part of God’s family, “so then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19).