A girl named Mary Magdalene

Friday. 7/22/16

On this Feast of Mary Magdalene forgive me for repeating an old Korean story about a girl with that name.

In 1954, a year after the close of the Korean War, I was sent to re-start a parish where the Korean pastor had been shot by the Reds five years before. When the war came on their town the people all had fled south, but now they were back, reclaiming their bits of farmland, and  rebuilding their mud and straw houses.

The town’s level of education wasn’t much. We had only one Catholic girl who had been through middle school.  What we had was packs of girls. About everyone of them had a little brother or sister wrapped onto her back. Each of them spent half a day in the hills, gathering sticks for their home fires. The rest of the time the flitted about, landing here and there like a flock of crow. .

 With our giving them something to do with their minds, they delighted in coming up our hill, and many of them wanted to become Catholics.

I didn’t speak their language well enough to give coherent instructions, so I laid out three steps for them to be baptized Catholic. First, they had to memorize 160 of the 320 questions and answers in our catechism. Second, they had to attend Sunday Mass for six months. Third, their fathers had to promise not to sell them as second wives to men who already had one.

A girl named Soun Pokey was so eager that she memorized all 320 of the catechism answers, and she came to Mass seven days every week. The trouble was that her father would not promise not to sell her to someone who already had a wife.

Afterwards Sloun Pokey kept coming to Sunday Mass, but I didn’t see anything more of her for a year. Then, she came knocking on my door, saying her brother was dying of Tuberculosis. Would I come and see about receiving him into the church.

She led me to their farmhouse, and then around to the back, where their father, to avoid contagion for the rest of them, had the young man lying on the ground in a lean-to at the back of their house. On the wall behind him they had tacked up a sheet embroidered with the words “Home Sweet Home.” It was the kind that brides brought to their new homes.

 I asked the young man if he had a wife, and he said, “I did, but I sent her away to live, because I must die now.”

The boy soon looked forward to my coming. And, when I gave him a leather jacket from my brother Frank, he wouldn’t take it off. He then asked for Francis as his Baptismal name. He wasn’t there one day I came by; and I heard they had dug a hole on other people’s land, and buried him. They then sold Soun Pokey to an army officer, and I heard no more  for five years.

Then, one day someone asked me to come see a girl who was dying. They took me around to that lean-to with the “Home Sweet Home” sheet on the outer wall of the house. Soon Pokey was lying there naked, but with the last of her strength she pulled the “Home Sweet Home”  sheet down to cover herself.

She told me she still knew the 320 catechism answers, and since she wouldn’t be married again, so could she be baptized now? Of course. She asked me for three things. Would I bring the water? Would I bring the Blessed Sacrament? And would I bring a Bible.

When I came back with them, Soun Pkey asked me to read today’s Gospel about Jesus having risen. She then asked me to baptize her Mary Magdalene. After I baptized her, and had given her Holy Communion, Mary Magdalene asked me to leave her.

After Mass the next morning I saw the men, standing around, smoking and laughing. When  I asked them about it they said, “That girl you baptized yesterday died.”

When I said I didn’t see anything funny about that, they said they weren’t laughing about her dying, but about what she said to her parents. She told them that she wanted them to pay for a proper church funeral.

Her father protested that her brother was worth ten of her, and he didn’t get a church funeral. But she threatened them, saying that if she didn’t get a proper funeral she would come back after three days to haunt them. Well, she got her funeral.

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