May 2018: Members of the St. Andrew Kim Catholic Church in the Twin Cities at their last mass in this building before moving to another location, where they share the campus with another parish. ~ pc The Catholic Spirit

That is, “Korean American priests” belonging to a diocese or a religious order in the U.S., and not “Korean priests” from a diocese in South Korea working in the U.S. on temporary assignments. But let’s put it aside for a few minutes.

In the last ten or eleven months, I’ve read or reread a lot of secondary literature in history and related disciplines about Catholicism in the modern era. Given the vastness of the subject, the more I read the more there is to read. Even a single topic like Marian devotionalism opens up a massive amount of scholarship that must be broken down into many sub-topics.  There are very good reasons for specialization, but it makes the mastery of the historiography a daunting task.  

Naturally, the most important works for me are about Vietnamese Catholicism, including monographs by Charles Keith, George Dutton, Tara Alberts, and Anh Q. Tran. (Articles in journals and edited volumes are equally important, but I am limiting myself to monographs with one exception below.) On ultramontanism, I perused some of the older works by historians of modern European Catholicism. The topic of Marian devotionalism has led me to some monographs, notably Deidre de la Cruz’s on apparitions in the Philippines; Stafford Poole’s on Our Lady of Guadalupe; and Thomas Tweed’s twin studies of the Cuban shrine of Our Lady Charity in Miami and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC.

Speaking of the U.S., there is a growing scholarship on Catholicism and post-1965 migration from historians, ethnologists, and sociologists. The most conceptually influential book for me has been Gerald Poyo’s history of Cuban American Catholics. I also learned a lot from several local studies: Roberto Treviño’s book on Mexican Catholics in Houston; Terry Rey and Alex Stepick’s on Haitian Catholics in Miami (along with Protestants and Vodouists); and Joaquin Jay Gonzalez’s on Filipino Catholics in the Bay Area (plus Protestants and Independents). Eye-opening too is Kristy Nabhan-Warren’s book about the Cursillo movement, which considers not only Catholics but also Protestants and the Fourth-Day movement. (Surprisingly, or not surprisingly, it shows no awareness of Vietnamese cursillistas in the U.S.)  Many other books, such as Jill Krebs’ monograph on Our Lady of Emmitsburg in Maryland and Tim Matovina’s on Latino Catholics, await my reading. 

In some respects, however, I must say that the book that has made me think the most, at least in the last few weeks, is a new collection of articles about Korean Catholics in the U.S. Reconciling Cultures and Generations: Reflections on Today’s Church by Korean American Catholics (2018) is co-edited by Simon C. Kim, a theologian and priest at University of Holy Cross in Louisiana.  Besides contributing the epilogue to this book, Fr. Kim had published a short book on ministry among Korean American Catholics called Memory and Honor (2013), which I’ve just finished reading. Ten years ago, Anselm Kyongsuk Kim, a philosopher of religion at Claremont Graduate University, noted that there were “no systematic studies, Korean or English, of the history and development of Korean Catholicism in America.” As far as I know, the situation hasn’t changed. But these publications by Fr. Simon Kim help beginners like myself gain an elementary background and context about this particular ethnic group of Catholics. 

Reading these books with an eye towards my research on the Vietnamese, I was especially surprised to learn about the make-up of priests among Korean American Catholics. As one of the contributors to the edited volume writes,

Often the earlier immigrants attend Korean liturgies while later generations are usually more prevalent at English masses. Most parish priests serving in these faith communities are sent from one of the dioceses in Korea by request of the local community and ordinary.  Thus, the parish structure and ministries of Korean American Catholic churches often replicate those of the homeland. Visiting priests stay for a few years before returning to their dioceses, while parishioners continue to live in the United States and must navigate their faith journey while interacting with American culture and society. As one can imagine, many issues emerge from this situation (Mi-Kyoung Hwang, p. 64; emphasis mine.)

Fr. Simon Kim’s epilogue explains further by way of comparison to Korean Protestant immigrants:

Unlike their Catholic counterparts, Protestant ministers immigrated to the United States with their congregations. In addition, there are a multitude of US-born ministerial leaders who can better address the generational and culture challenges than the Korean clergy. Earlier Catholic immigrants (for example, Irish, Polish, etc.) had clergy from their homeland accompanying the immigrants and thus knew intimately the struggles of their people living in another country. Whether due to poverty or an overabundance of vocations, other ethnic groups had their own clergy accompanying the faithful and eventually raising a new generation of ministers within the immigrant religious context. The Korean American Catholic experience is unique in that clergy did not “immigrate” with their parishioners, but rather were sent as “missionaries”–in the loosest sense–with the intent of always returning home after the temporary overseas assignment. Thus, there are currently more Korean priests in the United States than Korean American priests, an indicator that the majority of Korean American Catholic communities are pastored by visiting clergy (pp. 104-105, emphasis mine). 

Remarkable is the difference between these two groups! It is even more remarkable when we realize that a number of Korean Protestant ministers have come to the U.S. to minister to white Protestants. This is the subject of a recent book by my Pepperdine colleague Rebecca Kim, The Spirit Moves West: Korean Missionaries in America (2015). (Click here for an interview about the book.)  The historical difference about accompanying clergy has led to enormous consequences in the U.S., including the long-standing dependence among the Catholic immigrants on the Catholic Church in South Korea, which, incidentally, has experienced massive and record-breaking growth in recent decades.  Given these contrasts, it is hardly a surprise that Fr. Kim expresses in both books serious concerns about the future of Korean Catholicism in the U.S.

A recent example is St. Andrew Kim Church in the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Due to financial constraints and a desire to be closer to the University of Minnesota main campus to serve Korean American students, it moved this past spring to share a campus with another parish. According to a report from the Archdiocese’s paper,

The parish traces its roots to Sept. 26, 1973, when a group of Korean graduate students at the University of Minnesota came together for Mass at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

The Korean Catholic community organized as a parish in 1991, and ever since, St. Andrew Kim has served Korean immigrant Catholics in the archdiocese and western Wisconsin. The parish celebrates Mass in Korean and maintains a program for children to learn the Korean language and culture.

Here comes the part about visiting priests from South Korea:

For years, the parish was served by priests from the Archdiocese of Seoul, South Korea, but in 2015, its pastor left with no planned replacement. For several years, the parish celebrated Mass in English with local priests, or in Korean when visited by a Korean priest. Father [Hak Sun] Kim—a priest of the Diocese of Incheon, South Korea—was serving in campus ministry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when he learned of St. Andrew Kim’s need in 2016, and he began commuting many weekends to serve the Twin Cities Korean community. He regularly celebrated Mass for Korean students in Madison on Saturday evening before leaving early Sunday to celebrate Mass at St. Andrew Kim.

Bishop John Baptist Jung Shin-chul of Incheon met with Archbishop Bernard Hebda April 28, 2017, in St. Paul regarding assigning Father Kim to St. Andrew Kim. With another priest from Incheon assigned to Wisconsin, Father Kim was freed up to minister in the archdiocese. He officially began his role in February.

It is encouraging for the parishioners that they again have a resident pastor after two or three years without one. But this story only illustrates the historical and structural dependence among communities in the U.S on the Church in South Korea. It doesn’t allay the concerns of Fr. Simon Kim and other concerned parties in the Korean American community. 

My focus is squarely on the historical side, and reading these two books has made me think of an additional aspect in my conceptualization about Vietnamese Catholic refugees during the initial period of resettlement. Still, I think that it will be extremely interesting to see the strategy and policies that leaders in various Korean American Catholic communities will adopt in the near future.

Click here for an example from the Diocese of Arlington, which, incidentally, schedules nine Sunday masses in Vietnamese and four in Korean. They are the largest numbers in languages other than English and Spanish.

Click here for the edited volume, which is available via open access. Appreciation to Melody Layton McMahon (Paul Bechtold Library Publications) for alerting me to it.