Thursday, May 31, 2012
Spring 2012 Visit to North Korea
As has been my usual custom for more than ten years, this spring I traveled to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea with the Eugene Bell Foundation. Other members of the delegation included Dr. Stephen Linton and his wife Hyuna Linton, Dr. K Justin Seung from Harvard University, Professor Teresa Moriss-Suzuki from Australia National University, and Father Berard Christophe of the Paris Foreign Mission.
This spring's visit was scheduled for April 16th through May 1st but a Maryknoll Asia Regional conference in Hong Kong meant I had to leave North Korea on April 26th. Gratefully, I was able to celebrate Holy Mass at the Polish embassy for the foreign community in Pyongyang as usual.
North Korean authorities limit the number of delegations permitted per year as well as the number of days a delegation can stay in their country. Consequently, much must be accomplished in a relatively short period of time. On most days our delegation leaves the hotel no later than 6:30 am and returns long after dark. Because multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis is such a dangerously contagious disease, most of our work takes place outside. For this reason, our visits are scheduled for the spring and fall; when the weather is most agreeable. Despite these precautions, however, we sometimes have to spend wet, cold days out of doors, and this spring was no exception.
Occasional discomforts notwithstanding, I really enjoy these trips and this spring was not exception. As each group is different, usually two or three members on our delegations are complete strangers. I serve as the official delegation chaplain. Despite our busy schedule, the absence of cell phones, internet connections and other engagements provides many opportunities to discuss issues related to faith, particularly around the supper table on days we do not make site visits. For some who are not used to seeing so much suffering, these visits can trigger a spiritual re-awakening. Those who have a Catholic background often attend their first Mass in years in North Korea....
For the past few years, it has become a tradition for the Polish Embassy in Pyongyang to invite the foreign community to a celebration of the Holy Mass when I visit North Korea. This spring the Mass took place on April 22nd.
Celebrating Mass for Pyongyang's foreign community by visiting priests has now become an accepted custom. While it is still too early to expect that North Korean authorities will permit regular visits by priests, they have no objection to my ministering to foreigners when I am there to engage in humanitarian work with the Eugene Bell Foundation.
On Sunday April 22nd, Ambassador Edward Pietrzyk opened his mission and home to Pyongyang's foreign community and sent First Secretary Michaal Skotnicki to our hotel to conduct us to the Polish Embassy for the Mass. During the service, I was assisted by Father Berard Christophe of the Paris Foreign Mission. Approximately, fifty people attended from more than a dozen nations.
After, we were invited to a dinner prepared by Madame Anna Pietrzyk. I was deeply moved when the Ambassador and his dear wife got up from the table and served us themselves. On this and other occasions, by word and action, Ambassador Pietrsyk gives amble evidence of his deep reverence for the Church and the priesthood. My prayer is that God will expand this small beginning into a regular Mass for Pyongyang's foreign community.
Father Gerard E. Hammond