Today for the first time ever the people of Korea have a Catholic Holy Father offering Mass in their capitol city of Seoul.
In Thursday’s account of the papal arrival, we read how Seoul had cleared its main boulevard of all other traffic as Francis rolled into town in his economy class car.
That reminded me of what it was like sixty-one years ago when I arrived in Seoul on a Dc-3 flight. With the taxis and vendors still down at Korea’s temporary capitol of Pusan, the main drag was empty as I toted my two suitcases along it. That day a single jeep came along, and the GI gave me a lift to our Columban Fathers’ place. With the Columbans being the only foreigners functioning in Seoul during and immediately following the war, the seventy-five Catholic chaplains made good use of the Columban house.
You know, I suppose, that up to 1860 Korea was known as the Hermit Kingdom. Many priests sneaking on to its shores were caught and decapitated. Still, from 1776 on members of the yearly embassies to the Chinese Emperor brought back Catholic books, and groups of new Catholics functioned in priest-less parishes.
The Columban Fathers with whom I was a member had a diocese straddling the 38th parallel, and three of our young priests were shot down on the opening day of the war on June 25, 1950. Four priests died in northern prison camps, and two others were set free in a prisoners swap after they had three terrible years as prisoners.
From 1945 to 1950 North and South Korea had been divided at the 38th parallel, but from August of 1953 the two countries have been divided along the DMZ where the troops were opposed at war’s end. Then the North gained land south of the 38th on the west side of the country, but our Marines had pushed thirty miles north of the parallel on the East Coast gaining back land that had belonged to the North. We had a parish up there in the town of Yang Yang where just before opening the war the Reds had shot the Korean pastor Father Timothy RI. I was sent up there to replace him in September of 1954. Many of our young mothers had lost their husbands for ever in the North Korean Army.
The job of foreign missionaries is to work themselves out of a job. I baptized two eleven-year-old girls who as Sisters Dorothy and Josepha are still working there. I also baptized an eleven-year-old Kim Taik-shinny who as Father Joseph Kim is still working there. The Catholics in Korea are people the Church can be very proud of.