Monday, October 18, 2010

A Celibate Married Couple

The Peace Weekly TV station is preparing a drama of a married couple that were martyred at the beginning of the 19th century. They were not your usual husband and wife for they promised before marriage that they would live as brother and sister. They had both wanted to make that commitment to God so Fr. Chu Mun-mo, the Chinese priest who was the first to begin pastoral work in Korea, arranged to marry them. 

It is not difficult to imagine the difficulties encountered by such an arrangement on the part of  this couple: Lee Sun-yee, Nugalda  and Yu Chung-cheol, John, two strong-willed individuals that chose this commitment in their life of faith, a way of life that was not accepted by society. Both came from wealthy and educated families, but Nugalda had to oppose the wishes of her parents to go through with the marriage. It was an act of a very liberated woman, at a time when you would not expect it from such a new Christian.

A woman's freedom is limited in Confucianism; gender equality is not a value and many married women are treated more like slaves than companions, with few rights. When women in this society opted for a virginal lifestyle, it was a step that meant a great deal more than one would assume.
Nugalda and John lived in the Honam district of Korea. They have always been venerated by Catholics, and their shrine has many visitors. The process for beatification of  124 has been sent to Rome, and our two martyrs are on the list. However, they are not the only couple that  decided to live as brother and sister. There is also Kwon Therese and Cho Peter.  At the request of Therese, on their wedding day, Peter was asked if they could live as  brother and sister.  Peter acquiesced  and although he was not practicing, from the time of his marriage  his whole life changed: he helped priests to enter  Korea, have them stay at his house, and became a zealous worker in the community.

Marriages during the early days of the Church in Korea were only allowed between Catholics. They  were very strict in following this teaching, and when  not followed the parents would be denied the sacraments. This was why you would have families go through much trouble to find a Catholic mate for their children and this continued up until about 50 years ago when dispensations became common.

Plays and musicals have been made about the life of Nugalda and John, and also an opera. We now have the TV drama, "The Celibate Couple," which will be shown this coming month on Peace TV.

In the society we are living in today this kind of "spiritual marriage" goes contrary to our present values. That the Church is thinking of making a drama on a subject of this kind is counter-cultural. Today we have an appreciation of sex that was far from the understanding of the society in which the Church took root. The efforts of this loving couple  to honor their promise did not come easy, judging from what we know of their life, including the letters they sent home.

It's good to remember that Intimacy is not another word for sex, but a possibility for husband and wife even without the physical. This is something for us all to ponder, living as we do in a culture that speaks quite differently.

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