The Hermit Kingdom

By Gee-Gee O. Torres

Three and a half hours after the plane left Manila, I was already at Kimpo International Airport in Seoul, capital city of South Korea. Juliet Bacamante, one of our Filipino Columban lay missionaries, met me at the airport. Juliet said we would take the subway from the airport going to the Columban Central House where I would be staying. I was excited. This was my first time to take an underground train. We walked down several flights of stairs. I wondered where we were heading. We seemed to be getting down and down below the ground. Finally we came to a halt in a tunnel with rail tracks. Juliet said, “We’ll wait for...” and before she could finish her sentence a train charged into the station and stopped breathlessly. She dragged me along and we rushed among the many passengers waiting fro the train. I was like back in Manila at the LRT Station, inching my way to get into one of the carriages before the doors snapped closed.

A glimpse of Korea on the subway

The subway trip from Kimpo Airport to the Columban House took almost one hour and a half. But I enjoyed the ride so much that I didn’t notice the time, I was preoccupied watching the people in the train listening to Juliet as she briefed me with eh dos and don’ts in Korea. Unlike in my previous trips, whir I felt at home with the people right away, the Korean people seemed to be indifferent. They all looked seriously, so quiet that it seemed and Juliet and I were the only ones talking in the train. And the far end of the train I saw an old man dozing off, but the young man sitting beside him looked as if unaware of the old man. He was engrossed listening to his walkman. Then another passenger caught my attention. She was dressed in mini-skirt & body-fit shirt, with heavy make up and her hair was rainbow colors. And I noticed a young student giving her seat to an old woman. I could see the new generation caught between tradition and modernization. I wondered how do the old people cope with the fast-changing society in Korea?

Cup of Tea

It was almost eleven o’clock in the evening when we got to the Columban House. I was glad that despite arriving at an unholy hour, I got warm welcome from the Columban Fathers and, of course, the irish hospitality of “Would you like to have a cup of tea?” But since it was almost midnight I politely declined the cup of tea. So Fr. Denis Monaghan, the bursar, showed me to my room and we said goodnight.

My survival kit

The next day Juliet came over to see me. She wanted to make sure that that I was ready for my Misyon assignment. She gave me my survival kit – complete with telephone card, bus card, subway ticket and map, list of phone numbers. I survived my first day and found my back to the Columban House. After a few days of taking the subway, not to mention having waited for two hours at the wrong station for Juliet, I finally mastered the art of taking the subway. Now i was ready to go on my own and track down our Filipino missionaries. They were mostly assigned in Seoul so it was not too difficult to find their ‘hideouts’ for most places in Seoul are accessible by subway. There were times when I took the bus, but always wit ha companion; I wasn’t that confident riding the bus by myself. It was easier to take the subway for I knew exactly where to get off. (Thanks to Korean Government for putting up English translations of the names of the subway stations when they hosted the Olympics Games in 1988.) In a bus it was a bit complicated. Every street looked the same to me high-rise buildings, stores bearing Korean characters which I couldn’t possibly read, sidewalk vendors selling all sorts of products-from chopsticks to Kimchi to the latest fashion wear in town.

The Church in Korea

The history of Christianity in Korea is most interesting. It wasn’t brought about by foreign missionaries like in the Philippines when the Spaniards came. It was started by some lay people who went to China as scholars to study. There they met Jesuit missionaries and fell in love with the faith. And when they came back they started a praying Catholic community. So in the eighteen hundred when the first foreign priest arrived in Korea, he was amazed to find four thousands Catholics already baptized and awaiting his instruction. Not only is this unique in the history of Catholic foreign missions but is also source of pride to Korean believers.

The Korean Church is traditional and somewhat conservative. When you attend a Korean Mass you will still find many women wearing veils. And priests do not go round in casual clothes like here in the Philippines, but they all wear Roman collars. At Mass the people participate vigorously. They answer loudly and clearly and sing in very strong voices and, of course, everyone dresses up. I noticed they have a “cry room” where the children can be looked after during Mass. The children are visible through the glass wall and their guardians can follow Mass. At the offertory the whole congregation lines up to leave their offering in a basket in front of the altar and communion is very formal and solemn. Though Catholics in South Korea are a minority – 7% of the total population of 47 million – they are proud to be called Catholics. In the North, I am sure our fellow Catholics feel the same way, too.

Columban Fathers and their role

The Columban Fathers played a big role in the Korean Catholic Church. They came to Korea in 1933 when the first group of ten priests took charge of the mission territory in the southwest of Korea. During that time there were only six Korean priests in the area. In the early yeas there was a lot of harassment by the Japanese, who were occupying Korea, and when World War II broke out in 1945, missionary activities were suspended. All foreign missionaries, including the Columban Fathers, were expelled, placed under house arrest or imprisoned by the Japanese. With the coming of the Korean War in 1950, which is the cause of the division of Korea, once again the people and the priests suffered. Seven Columban Fathers lost their lives in this war.

In the 80s and 90s there has been a huge increase in the number of Korean priests. It was now time for the Columban Fathers to turn over their parishes to the Diocese. So from parish work the Columban now branched out into other apostolates such as counseling, hospitals chaplaincy. Justice & Peace, migrant workers and mission awareness. In 1984 the Columban Society also started their own formation program and accepted local vocations in Korea. Five years later they began to recruit lay missionaries, some of whom are here in the Philippines today. The Columbans may not vein as many parishes now as before but their work is far from over. They are into a new kind of missions: helping the Church in Korea itself become more missionary.

Once the Hermit Kingdom

Though the Korean Church is traditional and somewhat conservative, its is gradually opening its doors to the outside world. They have welcomed foreign missionaries like the Columban Fathers to come in and at the same time Korean Missionaries abroad. The land once called the Hermit Kingdom, I believe, is the beginning to come out of its shell and share its richness with the world.