BY KATHY SCHMUGGE
COLUMBIA — With their many gifts and rich traditions to share, Catholic Asian and Pacific Islanders came to St. John Neumann Church May 21-22 for their first annual gathering, “United in Faith: Celebrating the Eucharist.”
The experience gave this rapidly growing community of Catholics a greater sense of belonging and involvement in their parishes.
“We all should be active members, part of the parish family, and we should not be looked at as strangers or act like strangers,” Father Joachim Le Quang Hien said. Father Hien was the guest speaker at the celebration and also acted as an impromptu translator for non-Vietnamese participants.
Father Hien, a retreat master and popular speaker, has been a passionate advocate for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) document, “Asian and Pacific Presence: Harmony in Faith.”
He has worked closely with the USCCB and the Episcopal Conference of Vietnam for the Federation of Vietnamese Catholics in the U.S. in an effort to establish a ministry for the Asian/ Pacific community.
“We are glad that the Diocese of Charleston has already implemented some of the initiatives suggested in the document,” said Kathleen Merritt, Director of the Office of Ethnic Ministries. Merritt assisted Khue Nguyen in organizing the weekend.
During a workshop on May 21, Father Hien broke the document into three major parts: “Harmony Among Diverse Realities,” “Sharing Gifts and Promoting Harmony, and Building Communion,” and “Harmony: Challenges and Our Response.”
The document gives a profound feeling of pride to Asian and Pacific Islanders who represent 53 countries and territories, some ravaged by war. It begins with a proclamation from Pope John Paul II’s “Ecclesia in Asia.” The document states: “In the fullness of time, he (God) sent his only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ the Savior, who took flesh as an Asian.”
Father Hien explained to the congregation that the Holy Land, where Christ was born and lived his human life, is considered part of Western Asia, and Holy Scripture reveals the Asian influence on culture. When Jesus called his relatives “brothers and sisters,” it was something commonly done in the Asian culture.
The speaker was quick to emphasize the need for people from Asia and the Pacific Islands to integrate into a parish. Rather than using the analogy of a melting pot, he spoke of creating a wonderful salad with many condiments.
“Why do we find ourselves in the United States?” he asked. “It is providential and others may think better about another country, having met you.”
Father Hien’s approach to discrimination is to win society over one person at a time. He encourages people to learn as much as they can about the American culture, take in what is good and discard the bad.
He believes that language is important in describing ethnic diversity in the church.
“For example, we are not the American Catholic Church but the Catholic Church in America,” he said. “Our church is universal and we are the one church, the church of Jesus Christ.”
Kim Nguyen, a member of St. John Neumann Church, believes that Asian Catholics need to be more outgoing. He said that he has walked past another Asian at church without introducing himself.
“We need to be open and to step forward instead of waiting until we are invited,” Nguyen said.
Another highlight of the weekend was the blessing of a new Our Lady of Lavang statue that led the procession at the church. After Mass, the participants gathered for food and entertainment provided by the Asian and Pacific communities.
“We all have to be the messenger,” Father Hien said. “We owe it to everyone to invite them to be a part of this great message of unity. The Asian community must get connected because they have special gifts to offer the Catholic Church in America.”