Wednesday, April 1, 2009

North Korea Visitation Report of 2006

Because the Maryknoll Superior Jerry Hammond was busy doing what he does best (keeping busy), he asked me to fill-for him and go to North Korea. (This report by Richard Rolewicz) goes back to Nov. 3-18 06. I thought the section on the Church in North Korea would be interesting.) I traveled through the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea as a member of the EugenBell Foundation delegation. Among several other health-care projects, this interdenominational NGO has been providing medical & farming equipment, medicines and supplies for T.B. hospitals and care-centers at 40+ locations over the past 12 years. Skip…

Sr. Mary, Fr. Stan and I would get together early each morning for Mass privately in one of the rooms wherever we happened to be. On the two weekends of the trip we were in Pyong Yang so the whole group also attended Church services. The first Sunday at the Protestant Church, the second Sunday at the Catholic Church. In both places our group was ushered into the front pews with other foreign visitors. Skip…

At the Catholic Church the Blessed Sacrament is not reserved. Fr. Stan and I were asked to come up into the sanctuary but we both respectfully declined. North Korea has no resident Catholic priest and there is a question as to just who the "Catholics" attending services are. As a result the Cardinal Archbishop of Seoul asks visiting priests not to offer Mass publicly. For the service three young men in their 30s wearing white albs (no stoles) stood behind the altar facing the people. The man in the center led the service. He used the prayer from the Missal which was placed on the altar. The service followed the usual format for Mass: Penitential rite, Scripture readings of the proper Sunday; a sermon was read; creed recited and prayers of the faithful offered. But there was no offertory rite (collection yes). Then into the Preface. When we all were reciting the "Holy-Holy..." I began to wonder what kind of Mass this was turning into. However once we finished the "Holy-Holy..." the leader introduced the "Our Father" per usual (no Canon or consecration). Finally, with no last blessing, came the dismissal. So there was no attempt to offer Mass, although all the prayers, minus the canon and last blessing, were from the Mass Missal. Under the given circumstances I was expecting the “Out-station service without a priest” format to be used.

As happened the previous Sunday, we foreigners were ushered out of the church first. Except for an elderly gentleman who mentioned that he remembers Bishop Patrick Byrne, M.M., there was no contact with the local faithful. Bishop Byrne is buried somewhere just south of the Yalu River in North Korea. How that came to pass is recorded by F. Philip Crosbie, S.S.C. in March Till They Die.

Fr. Stan and I wore our Roman collars for both Sunday services, entering and leaving North Korea, while sightseeing and at the banquet with concerned government officials the last evening in the country. I'm also wearing it in the picture of my U.S Passport. I'm proud of it.But I must confess that while in the north I wore the collar with a somewhat in-your -face attitude.

More knowledgeable people might easily take issue with these superficial observations. I'll be the first to admit my ignorance of the North's Military First Politics and the social, economic, quasi-religious underpinnings of their system, i.e., their own homegrown Juche (self reliance) interpretation of communism. But by and large, I was pleasantly surprised during this trip mainly because of people of good will on both sides. These people of good will are the raw material out of which the Christmas message of "Peace on earth" (Lk2:14) becomes a reality. Their efforts are helping people in need and making this a more perfect world. The alternative to this is the gloom and doom of the Korean proverb: "When whales fight, the the shrimp get crushed."

Overlooked Catholic Patriot

One of the patriots in our Korean History is Ahn Jung-geun. He is the man who assassinated the first Prime Minister of Japan Ito Hirobumi in Harbin, Manchuria in 1909. This is the centenary of the assassination and next year of Ahns death. Japans imperialist oppression was causing a great deal of suffering to not only Korea but to all of Asia. His action had repercussion all over the world.

The Catholic Church is beginning to take a much deeper look at Ahn. In the past he did not always receive the interest that one would expect from such a patriot. This however has all changed. There are elements to the story of Thomas Ahn that are somewhat embarrassing for the Korean Church. He was obviously a very serious Christian Catholic. The editorial in a recent Catholic Paper mentioned:

Even though one says he knows about patriot Ahn and his act:

for the most part it is that he engraved a cross on the bullet

prayed for success and when in prison heard

of the death of Ito he made the sign of the cross and thanked

God. It is only fragmentary bits and pieces. It is clear that despite the

part in our history we were indifferent and negligent of this.

The editorial went on to say in conclusion that he is a good symbol of a Christian who did not take the suffering of his country lightly. He is an important asset to have for the Korean Catholic spirituality of the future.

There is a good article in the Wikipedia on An Jung-geun which will give you a good idea of the man and his ideals.