Commentary: Beatification of Martyrs may intensify Koreans’ reunification hopes – Hector Welgampola

The division of Korea into two countries was never the work of Korean people. It was a cruel accident of history. In the aftermath of World War II, it was imposed on them as part of the division of war spoils. American control of Japan spilt over to Korea’s southern region, while the Soviets’ influence via north Asia got stuck alongside their ideological control of the northern region. The divided country’s political elites did not take long to fall victim to the ideological syndromes.

Despite political estrangement in and after the long prolonged Korean War, the people’s yearning for togetherness still becomes quite palpable whenever families from North and South are permitted to reunite. Seniors from both sides of the sad divide still cherish memories of the past. But as they age, lingering memories begin to weaken. So do hopes of reunification, except for few shared links such as the Catholic Church.

Up until this day, the Korean Catholic Church has known no North/ South divide. The divided nation’s Catholics belong to the Catholic Church of Korea, not of North Korea or of South Korea. And as a symbol of that unity, the archbishop of (South Korea’s) Seoul archdiocese has been the administrator of (North Korea’s) Pyongyang archdiocese.

Whenever possible, the Church prefers to give leadership responsibility to local people. And in consonance with that policy, in 1943, the administration of Pyongyang was delegated to a Northerner: Bishop Francis Borgia Hong Yong-ho. In 1962, despite the 56-year-old apostolic prefect’s disappearance, Saint John XXIII elevated him as head of the diocese.

The one-time flourishing diocese, known as Jerusalem of the East, had some 50,000 Catholics. But while estimates now vary from zero to about a thousand, the bishop and clergy have gone missing since the Korean War. They are assumed to have been martyred under the rule of Kim Il-sung, grandfather of current ruler Kim Jong-un.

Pope Francis’ visit and upcoming beatification of 124 Martyrs, have revived questions about the fate of the long-disappeared Bishop Hong, who would have been 108 years old if still alive. While the Korean Church has asked Rome to beatify the bishop and his companions, faith links across the Demilitarized Zone border keep fanning people’s dreams of reunification.

Even if the hope of seeing such recent martyrs raised to the altar may be remote as of now, the long litany of early martyrs includes several Northerners. 

The social dynamics of such realities will continue to contribute toward upbuilding the Korean Nation’s collective consciousness. They can be part of a process of resource building toward the goal of national reunification that Christians have long desired and strived for. The build-up goes on slow, yet steady. It gathers momentum at its own pace – rather at God’s own pace. As much as that momentum is blessed by the Martyrs’ fragrance of sanctity, it continues to be sustained by everyday witness of God’s people. The laity-founded Korean Church’s now flourishing lay network of Small Christian Communities may offer a timely grace of outreach to Northern compatriots.

A Korean friend recently wrote to me about another small but prophetic move, though some may consider it controversial. He wrote to me about poet Kim Chi-ha‘s reported change of political stance. The dissident Catholic Korean poet is well remembered for his faith-inspired poems as well as for his life witness through imprisonment and harassment under the rule of strong-man Park Chung-hee since 1974. However, reportedly, the literary giant has come out in support of the strongman’s daughter, current President Park Guen-hye. The former prisoner of conscience has claimed that he now wishes to help reunite the politically divided country. No doubt, Kim has drawn inspiration from the faith saga of his nation’s ancient Martyrs as from the witness of his faith contemporaries such as late Catholic president Kim Dae-jung and late Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, whom Koreans called “the conscience of the Korean Nation.”

Cardinal Kim persistently promoted the Church’s liberative role in Korean society. A regular patron of people’s rights, he supported groups such as the Korean Catholic Farmers’ Movement as part of an ecumenical church of the people, popularly known as“Hyonjanj” (field) church. His focus was always on the broad picture of Church role in the Nation, not on the numbers game that often fantasised Korea’s growing Catholic population. He was quite dismissive of that phenomenon, whenever I asked him about conversions. “They come, they go!” was his unenthused reply. Even as his country now prepares to beatify 124 more Martyrs, his enduring legacy would still be the event’s spiritual impact on reunification hopes of God’s “minjung,” the struggling masses of the still divided nation.

Veteran Asian Church journalist Hector Welgampola from Sri Lanka  retired Executive Editor of the former Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) based in Bangkok. Before joining UCAN, Hector headed editorial teams of newspapers in Sri Lanka. Since retiring from UCAN Hector has lived in Australia with his wife, Rita. He authored the resource book Asian Church Glossary and Stylebook

Veteran Asian Church journalist Hector Welgampola from Sri Lanka retired Executive Editor of the former Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) based in Bangkok. Before joining UCAN, Hector headed editorial teams of newspapers in Sri Lanka. Since retiring from UCAN Hector has lived in Australia with his wife, Rita. He authored the resource book Asian Church Glossary and Stylebook

Korea will give Pope Francis a peep into the mosaic of Asian Christianity, by Hector Welgampola

The Churches of the global South have begun to feature pretty well on the agenda of Pope Francis’ early travels. His first trip was to attend the World Youth Day activities in Brazil. Then came his historic pilgrimage to the Holy Land in May. Come August, the pope will travel to South Korea. He is due to attend the Asian Youth Day there and the beatification of 124 Korean Martyrs.

Korean martyr Paul Yun Ji-chung screenshot from Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea's website. http://www.koreanmartyrs.or.kr/sbss124_en_view.php?num=1

Korean martyr Paul Yun Ji-chung screenshot from Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea’s website. http://www.koreanmartyrs.or.kr/sbss124_en_view.php?num=1

 Outreach to North Korea?

Brazil offered Pope Francis a brief encounter with groups of youth worldwide: the future Church. In South Korea he will meet with the future Church of Asia. His visit venue is 200 kilometres away from the venue of the recent ferry disaster. But, the tragic tales of the ferry martyrs will be even more palpable than distant memories about the beati Martyrs. Yet, more eloquent than the silence of all these dead is the muffled cry of living martyrs.  The first Asian visit can offer Pope Francis an opportunity for pastoral outreach to the entire Korean Nation, which was divided six decades ago by outside intervention. Just as Pope Paul VI spoke to the Chinese Nation from Hong Kong in 1970, no doubt, Pope Francis could reach out to all Koreans of North and South with a reconciliatory message. Exposure to the last vestiges of political ideology that still linger in Asia may also help alert him to newer threats of neo-racism sprouting in the region.

Catholic Korean lay volunteers and Sisters of Mary nuns from Korean Boys Town and Girls Town joined Filipino Sisters of Mary and other Catholics led by Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila in celebrating the 20th death anniversary of Fr. Aloysius Schwartz in Cavite Province. - NJ Viehland Photos

Catholic Korean lay volunteers and Sisters of Mary nuns from Korean Boys Town and Girls Town joined Filipino Sisters of Mary and other Catholics led by Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila in celebrating the 20th death anniversary of Fr. Aloysius Schwartz in Cavite Province. – NJ Viehland Photos

Laity-founded Church

The laity-founded Korean Church has been unique in many ways. Like most early Asians, Koreans revered the written word. Some Korean scholars visiting China about 300 years ago, brought home Scripture texts including those of Jesuit missioner Matteo Ricci. Laypeople’s study of these texts led to further visits to China where they sought Baptism in 1784. Scripture-based faith sharing sustained the priestless lay Church. And when missioners first arrived nearly 50 years later, they were surprised to find a faith community of 4,000 Catholics.

Integrated faith and witness

Lay spirituality has been the backbone of the Korean Church. During the last century, the virility of Korean laity’s faith became evident in the founding of lay groups such as the Korean Catholic Farmers’ Movement and the Woori Theology Institute. Woori’s young lay theologians have engaged in theological research and sociological surveys related to the everyday life of the local Church. Their research projects have helped improve the effectiveness of pastoral programs. As need arose, these lay movements worked alongside the Korean Priests’ Association for Justice. The Jesuari prayer movement met another aspect of people’s spiritual needs.

Such faith witness was encouraged by the late Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, whom Koreans often described as “the Nation’s conscience.” The first Korean to receive the red hat, he prided that his Myeongdong Cathedral had become the rallying point of striking workers of various faiths. The Korean Church integrated people’s faith witness with solidarity in people’s struggle for human rights in a fast industrialised society.

Lay saints

In many countries, canonisation is considered a privilege of clergy and Religious. But the vast number of Korean saints are laypeople. In 1984, Saint John Paul II canonised 103 Korean Martyrs. And on the upcoming visit, Pope Francis will participate in the beatification of another 124 Martyrs. They all personify the faith journey of mostly laity among some 8,000 Catholics persecuted for their faith through 18th-19th centuries. More importantly, although the country is divided as North and South Korea, the Church is not. And so the martyrs include Northerners as well as Southerners.

While celebrating the faith integrity of such witnesses who died for the faith, the Church needs more the integrity of those who live it out in service. The late president Kim Dae-jung’s long political struggle as well as the earlier faith witness of poet Kim Chi-ha are just two examples of such Eucharistic service as bread broken to feed people’s contextual hunger for justice, peace.

Lived witness

Jesus’ multiplication of loaves “shows the future Heaven,” said Kim Chi-ha in the “Declaration of Conscience” he wrote in prison in his early years. This reality is further depicted in his poem:

“Food is heaven As you can’t go to heaven by yourself Food has to be shared Food is heaven As you see the stars in heaven together Food is to be shared with everybody When the food goes into a mouth Heaven is worshipped in the mind Food is heaven Ah, ah, food is to be shared by everybody.”

Kim’s earlier poetry was similar to that of Latin American Ernesto Cardinale, which cannot be unfamiliar to Pope Francis. More than any recent pope, he is equipped with the grace to grasp the native wavelength of people’s yearnings that are variedly tagged in Asia as Korea’s Minjung theology, Japan’s Burakumin theology or India’s Dalit theology, all of which reflect the Gospel’s call for sharing and justice. Will he listen to these Southern voices of the Spirit, which some Church leaders have heard but not heeded? END

Veteran Asian Church journalist Hector Welgampola from Sri Lanka  retired Executive Editor of the former Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) based in Bangkok. Before joining UCAN, Hector headed editorial teams of newspapers in Sri Lanka. Since retiring from UCAN Hector has lived in Australia with his wife, Rita. He authored the resource book Asian Church Glossary and Stylebook

Veteran Asian Church journalist Hector Welgampola from Sri Lanka retired Executive Editor of the former Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) based in Bangkok. Before joining UCAN, Hector headed editorial teams of newspapers in Sri Lanka. Since retiring from UCAN Hector has lived in Australia with his wife, Rita. He authored the resource book Asian Church Glossary and Stylebook

Gov’t hosts meeting for Pope Francis’ Visit to Sri Lanka, ahead of PH

Sri Lanka’s Inter-Ministerial Task Force preparing for Pope Francis’ “state visit” from January 13 to 15 next year gathered together  public, civic, private business and Church leaders for the first time June 24 at the External Affairs Ministry, its Daily News national newspaper reported.

Sri Lankan unofficial source for dates of the papal visit to the south Asian country has also been cited saying the pope would arrive in the Philippines from Sri Lanka on January 15 in a report which the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines news website  and Facebook account cited.

For the Sri Lanka visit, External Affairs Minister Professor G.L. Peiris welcomed Archbishop of Colombo His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the Apostolic Nuncio Nguyen Van Tot, Bishop of Chilaw Most Rev. Valence Mendis, Bishop of Galle Most Rev. Raymond Wickramasinghe, Bishop of Kurunegala Most Rev. Dr. Harold Anthony Perera, Defence and Urban Development Ministry Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Law and Order Ministry Secretary Major General Nanda Mallawarachchi, Mass Media and Information Ministry Secretary Dr. Charitha Herath, Chief of Defence Staff General Jagath Jayasuriya, Army Commander Lt. General R.M.D. Ratnayake, Navy Commander Rear Admiral Jayanath Colombage, Air Force Commander Air Marshal K.A. Gunathilake, Inspector General of Police N.K. Illangakoon and representatives of other stakeholder institutions including the Public Administration and Home Affairs Ministry, the Highways Ministry, Airport and Aviation Services Ltd., SriLankan Airlines, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Immigration and Emigration Department and the Colombo Municipal Council.

All arrangements regarding the State Visit of His Holiness the Pope were discussed comprehensively at this meeting.

It was agreed that a further discussion would take place with the advance team from the Vatican due to visit Sri Lanka next week.

Read report, view meeting photos 

The Vatican has announced that Pope Francis would be travelling to Korea from August 14 to August 18 this year during which he will visit with and address young people from around the region gathered for Asian Youth Day, persons with disabilities, leaders of religious and lay groups. The pope will also hold private meetings with South Korean president and public officials as well as Catholic bishops of Korea.

No formal announcement has come from the Vatican concerning exact dates of Pope Francis’ visit to Sri Lanka and the Philippines, which the pope told an inflight press conference would be on January.

Sri Lanka media, quoting Cardinal Ranjith reported the January 13 – January 15 visit to their south Asian country. Catholic News Agency report later cited Monsignor Nevin Perera, coordinator of Sri Lankan migrants in Italy, saying that Pope Francis will leave Sri Lanka for Manila on the morning of January 15.

Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle also expressed confidence that the papal visit will push through. In an early June press conference on the 2016 International Eucharistic Congress attended by CiA, Cardinal Orlando Quevedo told reporters a Vatican representative is expected to attend the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines July plenary assembly to discuss the pope’s visit to the Philippines.

Palo Archbishop John Du, said the papal visit would boost the morale of ‘Yolanda’ (super typhoon Haiyan) survivors, especially those who are still struggling to rebuild their lives.

He said the typhoon survivors in Leyte await the pope’s visit and anticipate eagerly Pope Francis’ arrival in their province.

“The pope’s visit is another big blessing. We are happy for the blessing that come to us– the pope is coming, the people’s solidarity and the overwhelming generosity of the people,” Du said.

According to the Statistical Yearbook of the Church, which reports worldwide church figures as of Dec. 31, 2011, the increase in the number of Catholics in Africa (4.3 percent) and Asia (2 percent) greatly outpaced their regions’ population growth, which was 2.3 percent and 1.2 percent, respectively.

 

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