Six keys to inviting Asian Americans

Six keys to inviting Asian Americans

By Father Linh Hoang O.F.M.

Communities that  make an effort to understand Asian Catholics and consider their culture and needs are more likely to have a positive experience in inviting and receiving Asian members.

"YES, I AM DOING FINE,” replied Sister Ana as we sat down in the living room of her convent house. Even though we were alone, she whispered to me that I should just speak to her in English because that is now the official language of the house. I looked at her, perplexed because I knew the majority of the religious sisters living in the house were Vietnamese.

“Even when we are alone?” I asked. “Yes,” she told me, “The other sisters want us all to speak English because we are in America.” The frustration on her face pushed me away from continuing the language discussion.

This encounter that took place many years ago sticks with me as I reflect on the sizable proportion of Asian Americans entering religious life and priesthood in the United States. I have often wondered if other convents, seminaries, and houses of formation had an English-only policy to help improve their new members’ language skills. After investigating, I found that there was never a strict written policy in any community, but it was always suggested to new English speakers to practice it.

But as I have talked to Asian religious, the informal policy became much more complicated to me than just helping members become competent English speakers. Many wondered: Was this rule really to help the new members? How come non-Asian members were not encouraged to learn at least some of the language and culture of the Asian members, particularly when Asians were a majority? Couldn’t prayers or food or traditions of Vietnamese Catholicism become part of the life of the community? Was the English-only rule a subtle form of racism veiled under a cloak of fraternity? These questions cannot be adequately answered here, but they merit further reflection. They point toward the complex issues that arise in religious communities when Asians and Asian-Americans join what was a traditionally Caucasian group.

In the 2020 Study on Recent Vocations to Religious Life, Asians represented 13 percent of the newer members, that is those who have entered since 2003. Asians are over-represented in religious life because they only account for 2.6 percent of U.S. Catholics. This report underscores the need to respond to this population.

In this article I hope to first provide a general snapshot of Asian American Catholics. Second, I will look at six areas related to Asian American candidates that I hope will provide vocation directors, community members, and religious leaders a better understanding of these new vocations. I present these six facets in broad brush strokes: 1) understanding the cultural background, 2) family dynamics, 3) education and language, 4) food and socializing, 5) racism, and 6) preparedness of receiving communities.

 “Asian” encompasses many cultures

First let us look at the overall Asian-American Catholic population. According to the 2010 U.S. census, Asians are a small but growing ethnic group in the United States. They are just 5.6 percent of the 308 million-plus people in the country, and by mid-century they are expected to rise to 10 percent.

The term “Asian” lumps together a number of groups. The U.S. Catholic bishops describe the breakdown on their website, “The U.S. Asian Pacific population with the largest number of Catholics is the Filipino community, followed by the Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, and Korean communities.” Growing numbers of Catholics can also be found among other Asian communities such as Indonesians, Laotians, and Burmese.

Among the Asian Catholic groups, the Chinese, Filipinos, and Japanese were the first to arrive in the United States. In the late 1800s, they came in substantial numbers to work on the West coast. The Archdiocese of San Francisco in the 1870s was the first diocese to minister to Chinese immigrants. These three groups (Filipinos, Chinese and Japanese) can now claim many generations of Catholics, as well as newer Catholics still coming to the U.S. looking for economic betterment.

The other Asian Catholics—Koreans, Vietnamese, Indonesians, Laotians, and Burmese who arrived in the mid-20th century—came predominantly to escape political and civil conflicts in their respective countries. Many are refugees who came anticipating that they would go back to their home country. Still others have settled and now count second and third generations among their ranks.

Similar to previous Catholic immigrants, the newer Asian immigrants have some common traits: the request for liturgies in their own language, especially among the first generation immigrants; the creation of national parishes (Vietnamese and Koreans have the most); a habit of regular attendance at weekly Masses and holy days; a custom of pilgrimage to Marian shrines (for instance, annually Asian Americans flock to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.); and a custom of generously giving time to parish activities.

In addition the support for vocations is high among Asian Catholics because being a priest, brother, or sister is respected. These are professions that bring honor to the immediate family. But there are some concerns, as the second and subsequent generations become more influenced by an American society that does not value the vocation of religious life. Nevertheless, the support among Asian Americans for religious vocations remains high. I turn now to the six areas to be considered when inviting and keeping Asian Americans in religious life and the priesthood.

Since there is little information on the specific Asian ethnic groups entering religious life, I present here some general attributes that apply to most Asian groups. From my own observation, Vietnamese, Koreans, and Filipinos appear to be the predominant groups among Asians who are entering religious life and priesthood these days. Hence, my discussion will draw from experiences with these three groups but also try to maintain a broader perspective because there are growing numbers of Chinese, Indonesians, and South Asians interested in religious life. Since these vocations represent vastly different regions and cultures of Asia, I encourage vocation directors and their communities to become educated about the specific Asian Catholics they are encountering.

1. Understand the particular culture

Understanding someone’s cultural background means learning about the person’s country, its traditions and practices. A vocation director and his or her community should have conversations about what they already know. They might consult references in print and online to gain elementary knowledge about the candidate’s background. For example, I have met vocation directors who, when they meet potential candidates, ask directly what their background is, where they were born, and where their parents came from. This prevents guesswork and wrong assumptions—such as making a claim about a symbol that does not resonate with the candidate.

For instance, with a little research anyone can learn that the ubiquitous Asian symbols of chopsticks and bamboo are not used or recognized by all Asians. The chopstick is used only among Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, and Vietnamese. The remaining Asian groups—Indian Asians, Filipinos, Thais, and Burmese—do not use them. Knowing this, a vocation director can avoid the cultural mistake of offering chopsticks to a Filipino.

 Also bamboo is not part of Korean or South Asian culture but is readily used by the Chinese and Japanese. Another confusing symbol is the lunar new year. All Asian cultures celebrate a new year marked by the cycles of the moon and not occurring on the same date every year such as in the Western calendar. Knowing this much, a vocation director might chance to ask questions about a candidate’s new year. What is it called in his or her culture? How is it celebrated? And why does it fall on a different date each year?

Being able to understand the major symbols for a particular candidate can help welcome that person, make him or her more comfortable, and also show that the vocation director took time to learn about him or her.

2. Filial piety is a core value

In researching any Asian culture, a vocation director would no doubt learn about filial piety, a practice that is central in the lives of most Asian Americans. Filial piety means giving respect to living parents and paying homage to dead ancestors. This piety transfers to all familial and social relationships. Respect is shown through keeping appropriate distance and performing proper gestures to uphold the honor and dignity of all involved. Particular obligations fall to the eldest child in a family to maintain these familial bonds. The gender does make a difference in some cultures, but that is not always strictly observed. Hence, the eldest son or daughter must take responsibility for the elderly parents until and beyond their death. The value of honor first learned in the familial relationship will be applied to all aspects of life. All relationships take on a sense of honor for the other. Also, for many Asian Americans, age becomes a factor in relationships. The elder in a relationship is always shown deference because elders have gained wisdom through lived experiences.

Filial piety has many consequences, both good and bad. One in particular is the insatiable expectation parents (first generation) have for their children (second generation), manifested through repaying the parents’ sacrifices for the child. The child’s payback seldom involves money or any other tangible compensation. Rather, repayment for the parents’ sacrifice takes place through educational and professional achievements, making the parents proud and affirming the worth of their sacrifices. Many second-generation Asian Americans choose occupations consistent with their parents’ desire for a mark of success as defined by the larger society, such as becoming a medical doctor or lawyer. In turn the result is that some Asian Americans do not want their child to become a consecrated religious or priest because there is not much visible financial reward.

However the dynamic of filial piety can work in favor of a choice for religious life. Devout Asian Catholic parents who desire to have a priest or nun in their family will be very supportive and proud. They will feel that the child is repaying them with a profession that brings honor to the family and respect to them as parents. In some Asian cultures, such as among Vietnamese and Korean, there are special names and tremendous recognition bestowed on parents who have a son as a priest or a daughter in consecrated life.

Sometimes this wholehearted support and desire for a religious or priestly vocation can overshadow the real desires of daughters or sons who may respond out of filial desire to please their parents rather than out of an internal sense of calling. This is a complicated issue which does not surface immediately, but it is something that vocation directors should be aware of. Thus, it is always good for a vocation director to visit the family setting of potential candidates because this will provide a better understanding of filial piety at work. Vocation directors can observe how the candidate defers to the parents, how he or she interacts with siblings, and what role he or she plays in the overall family relationships. Through these familial observations, directors can ask questions about the responsibilities that a candidate has in the family. From the discussion of responsibilities, a director can probe further about whether the candidate has thought through cultural implications, and about whether he or she feels heavy expectations from the family.

To invite an Asian American into religious life, it is necessary to understand how the dynamics of filial piety and honor play out in vocational development. Since an older person will receive respect because of age and rank, a younger discerner may not say or do anything to cause conflict. A young discerner or a young person in formation may feel that he or she must just learn and observe rather than to cause tension, such as by questioning a rule in a formation house. This brings us to the third attribute, the Asian value for education.

3. Education is esteemed

Education is so highly valued in Asian cultures that it is a collective pursuit rather than just an individual one. The individual must take into consideration the expectations of the immediate as well as the extended family. As a collective affair, it can create enormous pressure for an individual to be successful in every aspect of his or her education. Also, it can be humiliating for an Asian candidate to not succeed in the classroom due to a deficit such as a lack of fluency in English. Added to this pressure is the stereotype that all Asian Americans perform well in school. Asians who enter American schools with insufficient skills may not get the help they might need because of this stereotype.

Even though education is a highly valued, collective affair, vocation directors will need to discern the individual capability of each candidate. They will have to evaluate not only the capability and desire of the new member but discuss realistically the person’s educational goals. This is especially true for Asian American candidates who lack English proficiency. These candidates will need fluency programs and other help to first bring their language skills up to speed. Then they can further their education. Poor language skills should not deter a religious vocation, but lack of fluency may challenge an individual’s educational desires. It can be troubling when education is highly valued but is not a reality for some because of individual ability. The individual may feel the expectations of his or her family, and vocation directors should be aware of that when discussing education with potential candidates.

In considering Asian Americans not fluent in English, a vocation director should inform candidates about the help and expectations of the community. Most candidates probably are already trying to learn the language but may not have adequate opportunities to practice it, or they may have to curtail their classes because of other obligations. The community’s help and expectations should be communicated from the beginning so that candidates do not have to later endure restrictions on using their native language. This is particularly important for communities with many members from the same ethnic group. They will want to express themselves with others who understand them and share the same situation.

4. Food can unite or divide

Food is an essential identity marker for many Asian Americans. Since Asian food is different from “American” cuisine, it is naturally distinctive and important to Asian Americans. It is both a comfort and an expression of who they are. Among Asians there are particular cuisines for each ethnic community, making it difficult to generalize about the food, and yet many times the discussion of food in religious communities revolves around its aroma. This is the point where food can become a point of contention.

When Asian Americans want to cook or eat their own food in a new community, they frequently come across members who say that the food “smells.” All food produces an aroma, either good or bad, depending on the perspective of the one smelling it. Many Asians are told that their food “smells,” which in general means smelling bad. For some this can be jarring and for others embarrassing because they feel they have offended others. When Asians have grown up with favorite foods that give off a particular aroma that reminds them of home or family, then being told it smells can cause tension in their engagement with the larger community.

Ideally food can open up opportunities for religious communities to share and to discuss, for example, why certain aromas give off a pungent odor but taste delicious, such as fish sauce or kimchi. In the same way some cheeses, such as Limburger, can be quite strong smelling but actually taste good.

The community inviting in Asian Americans must be aware that many will want to have foods from their homeland. Those who have entered communities with large numbers of Asian Americans have been able to cook and share their foods. Asian Americans in predominantly white communities often find their access to traditional foods is lacking. But this can be an opportunity for both the new member and the community to invite each other to try one another’s foods.

5. Racism is real

Within the racial conversations in America, Asian Americans continue to be considered “foreign,” which inevitably excludes them from debates that pit the majority whites against the minority blacks. Asians do not fit in either of those two camps. Furthermore Asian Americans are given the label of “forever foreign”—or the more insidious label of the “model minority.”

The “model minority” concept imposed on Asian Americans provides a favorable recognition compared to other minority groups, but ultimately it keeps them from being completely welcomed as part of larger white-dominated community. The “model minority” stereotype creates resentment by other racial minorities who see the educational achievement, successful businesses, and financial security of many Asian Americans. But the label also glosses over inequalities among Asian Americans. For instance, many Asian Americans use public assistance such as welfare and food stamps. Many Southeast Asians (Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians) have a disproportionately high rate of high school dropouts compared to Chinese, Korean, and Japanese Americans.

There are also racial characterizations to consider about Asian Americans. Those who are born and raised in the U.S. can find it racially insensitive when they encounter questions about whether they can speak their native language fluently; how they practice the traditions and customs of their “home” country; and to whether they know the full history of their “home” country. These questions are often innocent, but when Asian Americans regularly confront them, it communicates that they remain “forever foreign” in America.

These racial stereotypes can be particularly harmful when they occur within the church and religious life. However religious communities can help remedy this. For instance communities with large numbers of Asian Americans can make an effort to appoint Asian members to administrative bodies, such as leadership councils and formation programs. The inclusion demonstrates in an important way the awareness of the community, and it can be a means of encouraging new members from the Asian Catholic population. Their inclusion demonstrates that they truly belong, and it sends this message to members of all races. Another practical step is to have new Asian American candidates share their stories, not just about their ethnic background but rather about their vocational journey. This will help members see the similarities in God’s call to all people. Sharing stories connects the candidates to the members of the community and creates common ground.

6. Prepare members of the receiving community

A call to religious life or priesthood is both personal and communal. It is through an intimate relationship with God that a person feels drawn to serve the church in consecrated life. The call is communal in that the person’s family and friends become a source of support, and the religious community needs to confirm, through the vocation director, that the candidate’s call is genuine.

In addition to confirming an individual’s call, a community that is inviting and receiving Asian Americans should be willing to explore the differences in culture and racial experiences of Asian Americans. It is necessary to prepare members of receiving communities to understand the realities that confront the Asian American population. These realities do not go away when people enter religious life. In some cases, racial and ethnic differences become even more heightened.

This preparation for including Asian Americans in religious community will require knowing the five previous attributes and making them part of the community’s discussion. Members should be aware of the cultural, linguistic, and racial differences of their new member and not shy away from encountering the difference. A community that is willing to be open will find that it will have committed members for life.

§ § § § §

Asian Americans have created and sustained their place within the American landscape. They will continue to help fashion an American society that becomes ever more diverse. The American Catholic Church will also experience this diversity, especially as more Asian men and women enter religious life and the priesthood.

Many Asian Americans who enter religious life in the United States have the same questions and concerns as any other discerner. They have the same desire to become better followers of Jesus and the same hunger to faithfully live the Gospels. But they face many different challenges because they are entering communities that are culturally, socially, and racially different from themselves.

Some may feel that they cannot do anything about the differences and must accept their new environment without question. Most do not realize that their receiving religious community may not have consciously thought out the different cultural and racial backgrounds of new members. Many communities have not given thought to the changing face of the American church and its impact on them.

Therefore the responsibility falls on both the new member and the receiving community to acknowledge the differences. But ultimately it is the religious community that must make the first step toward a hospitable environment where new members feel welcome to explore a call from God. May all of our religious communities—through the grace of God—welcome in word and deed the gifts that Asian American Catholics can bring. n   

A version of this article appeared in HORIZON, Fall 2014.

Father Linh Hoang O.F.M. is a Franciscan priest with the Holy Name Province in New York City and an associate professor of religious studies at Siena College in Loudonville, New York. He served as a consultant to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on Asian and Pacific Islander Catholic concerns. In addition he is interested in increasing awareness of  religious vocations, having served on the Diocese of Albany Vocation Awareness Committee and as a consultant for his province’s vocation team.


In 2018 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)  released “Encountering Christ in Harmony: A Pastoral Response to Our Asian and Pacific Island Brothers and Sisters” (online at This pastoral response draws attention to and supports Asian American religious vocations. It also calls for an increase in the number of and visibility of Asian American leaders within the American church. The document asserts that this will attract new consecrated and ordained vocations and support the respective communities. The document emphasizes that representation and presence are key.

In addition, the USCCB has produced a course to help church groups develop cross-cultural awareness and competence. Learn more about the course at

Published on: 2014-07-01

Updated on: 2020-08-01

Edition: 2020 HORIZON No. 3 Summer

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