Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Korean Super-Parish

Here is an example of a truly 'missional' Catholic parish located in an urban slum in Seoul, South Korea. 

SEOUL (UCAN) -- A special parish located in the midst of urban poor communities in northeastern Seoul garnered praise for its service to them during its 10th-anniversary celebration.

Samyang-dong Mission Parish "has given much love to the poor for 10 years," Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Yeom Soo-jung of Seoul said on Sept. 4. I hope it continues to grow into a community of love, sharing and service."

The prelate delivered the homily at the anniversary Mass held in the chapel inside the parish building, a three-story house on a mountain slope surrounded by tenement houses.

Addressing about 80 priests, nuns and laypeople, he noted how the mission parish is "different from a 'regular' parish" in that it "is located in the very middle of the urban poor in the Samyang-dong" area.

"Serving and living with them is its purpose," said the prelate. Ten priests, five of whom work in mission parishes, concelebrated the Mass with him.

According to Bishop Yeom, five of Seoul archdiocese's 12 quasi-parishes are mission parishes located at markets, an expressway bus terminal and a hospital.

Samyang-dong was the first of these five and has about 80 parishioners, according to Father Elias Lim Yong-hwan, the parish priest.

The parish building includes his residence and a meeting room.

Clara Lee Seung-ok, head of the parish pastoral council, told UCA News after the Mass that the parish's networking with various small communities, not only its location and unusual physical aspects, make it special.

"Many parishioners including children are involved in a day-care center, a scouts group, a sewing factory, a secondhand home appliances shop and a welfare center located around the parish, all of which belong to the archdiocese," she explained.

Lee added that many parishioners come from low-income families and live in rented apartments.

According to a leaflet distributed to Mass participants, the factory was established in 1995 as a cooperative, the scouts group in 1998, the House of Peace welfare center in 1999 and the shop in 2000.

The welfare center offers education programs and activities for children, and organizes free food donations to elderly people who live alone as well as visits to sick people in the area.

Rufina Shin Deok-rye said that while the relationship between parishioners and the parish priest in a "regular" parish is superficial because of the large number of Catholics, her parish is like a family.

Othilia Kim Deok-sim agrees. "I once lost my faith but regained it after I attended a Mass here five years ago," she said. "The parishioners are close enough to one another to know each other's economic situation. So I feel like coming here to meet them all the time."

Both Shin and Kim work in the factory producing religious garb for Religious and priests. Like them, most of the factory workers are parishioners.

Father Peter Lee Kang-suh, president of Seoul archdiocese's Catholic Urban Poor Pastoral Committee, which set up the five mission parishes, says they are needed because the poor have become more isolated and anonymous in large cities like Seoul.

"In this situation," he told UCA News, "mission parishes support the poor well, because parish priests are always available to them and care for their welfare especially through the House of Peace," he explained.

The Catholic Urban Poor Pastoral Committee has set up eight House of Peace centers in the Seoul mission parishes.

"We plan to set up another House of Peace for North Korean refugees," Father Lee added.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, September 1, 2008

Dreaming Big

This morning my friend, Yunkyung, took me to Chonjinam, the birthplace of the Catholic Church in Korea, about 90 minutes southeast of Seoul. Korea is rather unique in the Catholic world in that the faith was brought to the people by bibles and religious books (from China), and then spread through the evangelizing work of lay men who studied Catholic doctrine and believed it.

One of those men was Yi Byeok, who, in 1773, at the age of 19, read some of those books and believed. He acquired more books and began studying Catholic doctrine in earnest, eventually debating its merits with Confucian scholars, some of whom also came to the Faith. Since they had no priests, they observed the Lord's Day with prayer, reading, meditation, fasting and abstinence. After failing to contact the Church in Beijing, he sent a friend of his, Yi Seung-hun, to China in order to contact the western missionaries in Beijing and be baptized. Upon his return to Korea, Yi Seung-hun baptized Yi Byeok, who took the Christian name John the Baptist, since he felt called to prepare the way of Christianity in Korea. Yi Byeok became an active and effective evangelist, and it was this activity that earned the reprimands of his parents. In Korean culture, which was heavily influenced by Confucianism, filial piety was the most important virtue a man could have. His parents threatened to hang themselves if he continued to spread what were considered foreign ideas.

I find it interesting that these ideas were not the core of Christian doctrine, necessarily, but some of the consequences of that doctrine: the prohibition of worshipping ancestors; allowing men and women to sit in the same room together; and disregarding the distinction between nobles and commoners.

In his 31st year, after encountering his parents' self-destructive threats every time he prepared to share his faith, Yi Byeok entered a period of intense prayer and fasting. During this time, it is thought that he composed The Secret Adventure to God. He died of exhaustion in 1785, at the age of 31.

Yi Byeok's life is described in a short book by Msgr. Byun Ki-yung, the executive secretary of the Committee for Beatification and Canonization of the Founding Fathers of the Catholic Church in Korea. Msgr. Byun is also responsible for the plans to erect an enormous church in honor of those lay men who founded the Church in Korea at Chonjinam. It is estimated that it will take one hundred years to build an immense structure nearly two football fields long and capable of seating 33,000, with room for 15,000 more to stand outside. The site of the church is a beautiful valley tightly surrounded by tree-and-cloud-shrouded mountains. On the leveled site are 1 meter square granite blocks marking the pillars of the future church. It will truly be a mammoth structure, and a physical focal point for the Korean Catholic Church.

Located just 150 meters up one of the low hills are the graves of the five lay men who are credited with founding the Catholic Church in Korea. Along with Yi Byeok are four other men, including Peter Yi-Seung Hun, the first baptized Korean, two men noted for their scholarly knowledge of the faith, and the first native Korean catechist - all martyred in the persecutions of Catholics in 1792 or 1801.

While Yunkyung and I were walking around the site of the church, one of the workers who had let us drive up to the plateau drove up and informed us that Mass was about to begin, and would we like to attend? Naturally, we did, and I was able to concelebrate with none other than Msgr. Byun himself. He then invited us to a quick lunch with him before he had to drive to Seoul for a meeting concerning a high-power electric tower being proposed by the Provincial government to be placed upon one of the hills overlooking the church site. It was a delight to hear about some of the plans, and I regret that I wasn't able to understand a word of his homily at Mass. Yunkyung said it was about the early martyrs and the foundation of the Church in Korea.

The elegy written by Jeong Yak-Yong for Yi Byeok powerfully expresses the beauty of the faith for those early Korean Catholics.

A crane from fairland,
Came down to us common men.
Its feathers and wings were white as snow.
Cocks and ducks were jealous of its graceful features.
The crane's cry was strong enough to make the Nine Heavens tremble.
Its clear song stood out among the troubles of life,
In autumn, when the time to return came, suddenly it flew away.
What use is it to moan its leaving?


Friday, August 29, 2008

Hello from Jeju Island

I haven't had an opportunity to blog. I've been visiting Jeju Island, the "Hawai'i of Korea". Yunkyung and I are staying in a traditional Korean pension (motel), which features a Korean sauna. Very relaxing! I slept 9.5 hours after spending an evening in what amounts to a large oven for people. I was only medium rare. Here's a picture of one of the little rooms. Very quaint and reminiscent of Hobbiton.

Jeju is a self-governing island, meaning it has more autonomy from the central government than other provinces. This volcanic island is a definite tourist destination, with lots of beautiful natural scenery along with man-made attractions, like the museum we visited two days ago. I call it the "What do you do on an island with lots of rocks and interesting roots" museum. Lots of stacks of volcanic rocks, "grandfather" rock carvings known as dolharubang that would stand at the entrance to villages, and the remains of the roots of a particular kind of tree that were displayed with titles like "erupting rage" and "Swan Lake."

While visiting a small island south of Jeju, I also had an opportunity to sample the freshest sushi ever. I saw the fisherman catch the fish, and Yunkyung prepared it with a knife he borrowed from the fellow. Mashisayo (delicious!).


Buddhist-Christian Conflict in Korea

There has been nothing in the Korean media about the violence in India, at least not that I’ve seen. It truly is awful and tragic what is happening there. But a kind of parallel situation is happening in Korea, although nonviolently. Two days ago, as I boarded a plane with my friend for Jeju Island, the largest of the Korean islands and a vacation destination for Japanese, Chinese and Korean tourists, I picked up a copy of the Korea Times, a national newspaper printed in English. The headline read, “Buddhists Urge Lee to Apologize,” and the article covered a protest march of 200,000 Buddhists led by thousands of Buddhist monks. They came to Seoul, the capital, to protest what they call president Lee Myung-bak’s administration’s discrimination against one of the country’s largest religions. The Buddhists represented the four branches of Buddhism that are popular in Korea, and demanded an official apology from the president to Buddhists, reprimands for public officials involved in religious discrimination, including National Police Agency Commissioner General Eo Cheon-soo; and legislation to ward of discrimination because of religion.

The Korean constitution protects the freedom of religion, but Lee, a Christian and an elder at a Seoul Protestant church, has been suspected of discriminating against non-Christians even when he was mayor of Seoul. His cabinet is filled with Christians, and he has called for the conversion of Buddhist adherents.

According to the Korea Times,
“The dispute erupted after police officers searched the car of Ven. Jigwan, the chief executive of the country’s largest Buddhist order, Jogye, in their search for anti-U.S. beef protest organizers taking shelter at a downtown temple. Following the incident, Buddhists cited dozens of examples of anti-Buddhist discrimination. For instance, a transportation data system provided by the government inJune omitted locations of Buddhist temples [M.F., but not Christian churches]. Maps of Cheonggye Stream, a body of water reopened while President Lee was mayor of Seoul, also excluded temples. Meanwhile, the Seoul City government decided to impose a fine on rally organizers as they staged the protest rally without permission.

A Jogye Temple Buddhist refuted the allegation, saying, ‘We sent an official note to the office on Aug. 17 to request approval.’ He added the city government has never restricted the holding of a religious event.”
Part of what caught my attention was the accusation that Lee’s actions were seen as impeding social unity. Korean culture is very homogenous, and it is a secular society, even though about 40% of Koreans are Buddhist and 26% Christian. The remainder are non-committed, like my friend, Cha. Ancient Buddhist temples are common tourist destinations, and their foundations date often to more than 1,000 years ago, when the Goryeo dynasty promoted it over Confucianism.

More protests are planned around the country if the President doesn’t apologize. It is very unlikely, however, to lead to violence. My friend’s response, I imagine, is similar to what many Buddhists and non-religious Koreans would make. “Why can’t President Lee allow Christians to exist in harmony with non-Christians?” Evangelization is a grassroots endeavor, as one’s personal faith, expressed in action and words, generates curiosity in people who trust us. The spreading of belief in Jesus is impeded by proclamations from on high – whether by Christian public officials or Church leaders – because they tend to make trusting an ordinary Christian more difficult.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Reflections from a Farmhouse

Yesterday, Yunkyung and I went to his farmhouse in the country. He has a small home – almost a retreat, really, on a plot of land overlooking a narrow mountain valley filled with rice paddies and a small country village. During the day, the air is filled with the sounds of nature: cicadas thrumming, birdsongs, the faint gurgling of a brook that runs through his property. Yunkyung comes here most weekends, as a place to write and reflect with little or no interruption.

Over the last fifteen years, he’s planted ginkgo, apricot, chestnut trees, and a number of pines. Yunkyung has also planted a variety of other herbs and plants. Virtually everything has some use, usually medicinal. He treated me to a glass of what he called apricot tea. It was almost a syrup, made from apricots he had dried, then put in a large jar with water and sugar last year. He poured a few teaspoons into a glass, added some pomegranate vinegar, and cold water from the spring on his property. It was absolutely delicious; very refreshing. Without the vinegar it is almost too sweet.

Last night we cleared an area of weeds and vines and planted napa cabbage and small daikon radishes that will be used to make homemade kimchee in the autumn. We had dinner in the village in his favorite restaurant. There were four low tables only – and no chairs; a very traditional way of eating in Korea. The food was wonderful and plentiful: a variety of kimchee, small raw squid in a spicy sauce, a fluffy egg soufflé-like dish, delicious salted fish, and a stew made of kimchee and tofu, rice and what the Japanese call nori (thin rectangles of salted dried seaweed which I love with rice). It only cost 10,000 won – about 11 dollars.

Before arriving at his farm, we stopped on the way at a nearby Buddhist monastery and temple that boasts an 1100 year-old ginkgo tree. While we sat in the shade of one of the buildings, Yunkyung mentioned that Buddhist religious life is more similar to Catholic religious life than the life of Protestant ministers. He was thinking about the role of celibacy in both Catholicism and Buddhism, but we spoke a little about other aspects as well.

I mentioned the Benedictine motto of “ora et labora” (prayer and work), and he said Buddhist monastic communities had a similar custom. Many such communities would farm the land around the monastery to provide their own food. Those that did not have arable land, like the monastery we visited high up a mountain valley, would send monks into the neighboring villages in the valleys below the monastery to beg for grain and other foodstuffs, while preaching Buddhist tenets to the farmers. Sounds similar to the early days of the mendicant communities like the Dominicans and Franciscans.

“Nowadays,” Cha said, “many Buddhist communities are rich. Individual monks even have their own passenger cars.”


That, too, sounds like religious communities in the west. How easy it is for us religious to forget the witness of a life of simplicity, even some austerity, in a consumption-driven world.

“Still,” he added, “there are some monks who are deeply devoted to prayer and meditation. One monk who recently died, went seven years without lying down. When he wasn’t eating or working, he was sitting in the lotus position in prayer and meditation. He became the head of his order of monks, and when he died, there were so many people at his funeral...”

My friend, Yunkyung, who is not religious, nevertheless meditates regularly. He said he began in 1999, and even went to a meditation house for awhile. The vibrant, radical practice of a faith tradition will almost inevitably engender some level of curiosity in others.

Catholic religious life has ideally been a way to practice the faith in a radical way. Not only has it been meant as a way of identifying more deeply with the humanity of Christ, it has also meant to remind those living “in the world” that there is more to life than power, autonomy, wealth, and family; that there’s more to life than this life. The danger is religious life can become merely an “alternative lifestyle,” not calling lay people to incorporate prayer, reliance upon God’s providence, and service of others into their own lives, but becoming a remarkably different way of being a Christian. Then the impact of religious life on the lives of lay people is profoundly diminished. We become the ones who have been called by God, while everyone else can feel free to live according to their own desires. In a culture that has become increasingly filled with specialists, religious become the religious professionals – the only ones competent to evangelize or catechize. In a situation such as this, one might well ask, “what can the religious learn from the lay person?” and come up with the answer, “nothing.”

Perhaps it was this question, or the sense that religious life was having little or no impact on the lives of lay people, that led religious to abandon traditional habits and communal life after the Council. Returning to the fundamental charism of their founders would not have required – or even called for – the changes in externals, but something had been lost in their meaning along the way.

One of the questions I must struggle to answer for myself is, “how does one live a distinctive religious life today that points to a life beyond this one, while at the same time respecting the profound value of the lay vocation to transform society through a radical following of Christ in this life?”

My friend, Cha Yunkyung, while not overtly religious, has cultivated a life that would be suitable for Catholic lay people. He is deeply devoted to his family as well as the university students he teaches (the children of his former students call him ‘grandpa’). He is involved in research investigating the ways in which people are educated around the world and is a founding member of the recently established Korean Association for Multicultural Education. He is at home in nature and utilizes its bounty for himself and others, and he meditates to help develop self-control. From what little I understand about the life of a Confucian scholar, he seems to fit the model. From what I know about how Catholic lay people are to live, he has a lot of those characteristics, too – and I find a lot to respect and value in his life.

We're talking more and more about religion and about God. He certainly respects my faith.


Sunday, August 24, 2008


What do you get on a Sunday evening on the last weekend before school starts and every family in Seoul is out for a last fling with the kids?

A traffic jam that begins 100 km outside the city, and rest areas that are mobbed with travelers hoping to get a respite from the crowded highway encountering an even more congested parking lot.

There even was a line for the men's room!

Oh, the humanity...