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

“The whole country is in an atmosphere of funeral” – South Korea bishop

Bishop Peter Kang U-il in an e-mail to Catholic in Asia on Easter Sunday wrote, “The whole country is in an atmosphere of funeral” for passengers of the ship that sank off South Korea on Holy Wednesday on its way to his island that has been billed as Korea’s Hawaii.

“Everybody is praying for the dead and the missing persons. Many from the Coast Guard, Police force and civil officials as well as volunteers are (doing) their best to save those who are still missing, but no one could be optimistic at this point,” shared Bishop Kang who is also president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea.

He adds, “Since so many teenage school students were included in this incident, many people feel a great compassion and pity on their death.”

Media reports two days after the bishop’s letter said 58 bodies of confirmed dead have been taken back to land and 248 people remained missing after Sewol Ferry carrying mostly school children going on holiday to Jeju (Cheju) seemed to have smashed into rocks, tilted and sank as it tried to make a turn.

[Prayers and messages for the passengers, their relatives and friends and for everyone involved in the accident, rescue, probe and healing efforts are welcome in the comments section below.]

“At this moment many raise the question on an appropriate measure which should be taken by relevant authority. Government source (has not issued an) overall official statement yet on why and how this could happen,” Kang reported.

He echoed people’s criticism of government’s failure to “execute an effective and integral leadership to cope with this disaster,”  including mobilizing a crisis team composed of  expert professionals that could take needed action for rescue, recovery and probe of the disaster.

He recommends the country use the “good occasion” the accident offers for them to review the system of safety and “security in every level of society.”

“It seems that it will take still some more time to analyze and make clear the exact cause of this incident and all the elements which gave impact to it,” Bishop Kang concedes.

Cheju was created an apostolic prefecture in 1971 and elevated to diocese with Missionary Society of St. Columban Bishop Harold Henry as its first bishop. Bishop Kang is its fourth bishop.