Friday, November 30, 2012

Japanese and Korean Bishops' Meeting

Korean and Japanese bishops met together November 13-15, in Korea, to discuss nuclear power plants and the problems they pose for our society. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan there is a sensitivity on what position to take on nuclear energy. Where should the bishops stand regarding the movement to abolish nuclear power plants was the topic discussed for three days.

They listened to talks on the likely problems that would develop and the direction needed for the future; they visited a nuclear power plant and offered Mass commemorating the meeting. At which time the bishop celebrant said, "God gave us this earth as a place to live on and to take care of,  which requires that we live smaller, simpler, plainer lives. With the abolition of nuclear power, our lives on the earth will be safer, and we can enjoy peace. Is that not  the direction in which the Church has to go?" Furthermore, he stressed the importance of cutting back on the use of our natural resources, which requires that we simplify our lifestyles.  The three days ended with small group discussions and a plenary session.

Both Catholic papers devoted space to the meetings of the Japanese and Korean bishops' conferences commenting on the  discussions  to develop renewable  energy from wind and sun, water and other natural sources. By renewable energy is meant energy that comes from natural resources that  can be easily replenished. One participant said the issue is not a political one but one about life.

On the visit to the nuclear plant they were told  by the representative of the plant that the energy produced, relatively speaking, is cheaper to produce than that from fossil fuels, and that Korea has fewer and less severe earthquakes  so the plants can be built with relative safety. Because there is just so much that can be done with renewable energy in Korea, nuclear energy can be produced safely and is economical was the representative's response.

The president of the Korean Bishops Conference was quoted as saying in the article in the Peace Weekly, "We can't see radioactivity, but it is harmful to life. The Church should make known to the citizens the necessary information, so they can make the right decision on the use of nuclear energy." 

Whether or not to use nuclear energy is obviously a very sensitive issue. It is known that it doesn't take an accident for a nuclear power plant to release radioactivity into the air, water and soil. All that is necessary is the everyday routine operation. Germany has made the decision to do away with nuclear plants and there will be other countries doing the same. What will Korea do? The position of the Church on this issue will be watched closely by many.  

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Medicine and the Culture of Life

A column in the Peace Weekly, which aims to help create a culture of life, deals with some serious medical issues . The writer of the current column, a doctor and a medical university professor, is a member of the Seoul Catholic Committee for Life.

The first issue discussed concerns patients who begin their treatment in Korea but then opt to go overseas for stem cell therapy. The facts, according to the doctor, are still in the experimental stage and yet there are some patients who stop successful treatment here in Korea and go to countries less advanced for treatment. The expense of being treated outside the country is great: transportation for the surgery and accommodations in the country put a great burden on the patient.  However,many patients see it differently, says the doctor,
they see the treatment in the home country lasting a long time and without any guarantee of success.

In Korea, having surgery that has not been approved by clinical testing is against the  law. These stem cell medical treatments have not as yet been proven, and yet many are convinced by the publicity that they are. The doctor feels they are  going overseas to commit suicide. We should be very slow to accept claims of cure and he wants the citizens to become familiar with the facts.

The second issue is the use of secret formulas to treat disease. In Korea, there are many  ways of being treated for disease. This is publicized by the newspapers and by many other media. The sick hear of a certain medicine, a person with the same disease was healed by taking the medicine and, consequently, the sick person wants the medicine. It is very common response. But the doctor says he has treated many from the side effects of these self-prescribed medicines.

The medicines are usually extracted from plant life and not just one ingredient but a mixture of many that can have an effect on the living organism. Consequently, they should also be tested clinically before use.

The third issue was clinical tests for medicines, both for adults and children. There is a difference in the   results of  medicines given to children, who are still growing, and to adults. There are medicines that are allowed for adults but not for children. This requires that we have tests for both groups, says the doctor. Some of the   companies have difficulty with the tests because of the time necessary and the expense. And since the adults make up most of the consumers the tendency is to want to avoid the clinical test for children. This requires, concludes the doctor, that these companies be cognizant of their ethical mission in the production and marketing of medicines.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Importance of Prenatal Environment

Koreans have an expression for the prenatal care of an unborn child: the attention of a pregnant woman to her own mental health and education of the fetus.

Strange as it may seem, a well-known physicist with a doctorate from Columbia and now teaching at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, is one of the leaders in the study of the influence of the environment on the formation of the child in the womb.

Professor Kim Soo-yong was interviewed by the Catholic Times recently to uncover the reason for his interest in prenatal education. With his background  in science, it makes many shake their heads when they hear about a physicist becoming interested in the education of the fetus.

He has for years read many of the Korean classics in this field and wants to validate what they have uncovered with scientific knowledge. To the professor, the human brain is as  complicated as the universe which is his primary focus as a physicist. He began to take an interest in the study of prenatal education while in the States. He wondered how his brain was different from other brains. He couldn't give up the study of  physics but continued the interest in prenatal studies. There was, he admits, much frustration in the quest for knowledge on prenatal training.

Pittsburgh University some years ago made a study of prenatal care  that suggested that inadequate prenatal care significantly affects a person's intelligence. This was accepted with much interest throughout the world, but the professor says the Koreans knew this many centuries before. In other words, nurture is more important than nature. The Koreans often say that one year in the womb is more important than 10 years after birth.

The professor gives us the example of the Holy Family with Mary and Joseph doing all that was necessary in the prenatal education of Jesus. They were both obedient and prayerful, waiting patiently and courageous. The Holy Family is an example, he says, of putting into practice correct prenatal care.

It is not only for intelligence that prenatal care is necessary but to  prepare the child in the womb to receive all that God wants to give.The first thing the fetus should come in contact with is love. And during this time to have the fetus come in contact with the love of Jesus. This energy from love will make the brain supple, says the professor, and enable the child to overcome the many difficulties in life.

With these words, the professor recommends that pregnant mothers routinely attend Mass. He hopes  priests will be more understanding of the importance of the prenatal period. This interest in prenatal care and education is something that has had little foreign influence, he says, and is native to the Korean way of life.

He wants the Church to consider this a vital  part of its teaching and to have the laity put into practice this teaching by stressing the importance of holy family life and the influence this will have on the  prenatal education of their children.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Blessed are they who Mourn

 In Matt.5:4, we read,  "Blessed are they who mourn,for they will be comforted."With these words, the Catholic Times introduces us to a program to help those faced with the death of a loved one. The death of a loved one is always painful but when the relationship is close, scars are difficult to heal.
In 2006, two Jesuits started the program to help not only those grieving for a spouse but children who have lost a parent. The two priests were  enabling others   who were faced with the same  sense of loss to join others  who were encountering the same difficulties. Receiving help from specialists in the field of death and grieving, the Jesuits put together an eight-week course for the two groups, each Jesuit being responsible for one of the groups.

Emotions are a gift from God, says one of the priests, and instead of repressing or distorting our feelings they need to be expressed, especially when caused by pain; expressing our feelings, he says, is healthy and good. For this reason, he would like to see the movement spread within the Church.

The life force of the groups is empathy. Because it is a meeting of those grieving, they understand each other, are able to speak freely about feelings they would have difficulty expressing even to their families. To have a priest present is also a help for those who are working through their grief. Having spent many years working with the bereaved, the priests can rely on their experience to make the appropriate response in any situation, if the participants request help.

In most cases the priest does little, only providing an opportunity for expressing shared griefs and the consolation that often results from healing those griefs. The group meetings are also a school for priests. Anything the priests want to say is often said by the participants before hand. They are both patient and doctor at the same time.

The first meeting of bereaved sons who have lost their parents occurred this year. Korean men do not find it easy to express their feelings, said one of the priests. They have not been formed in that way. Meeting together in a group has made it easier for them to deal with their feelings.

These groups, usually about 8 participants, are open to all to attend regardless of their beliefs, and last for eight weeks, after which the St. Paul sisters take over. The groups then become forums, talking about books that are selected.

During the month of November we are also given the opportunity to deal with our griefs, as the liturgy focuses on death and dying and about all those who have preceded us on our journey to God. The Buddhists, in a similar way, have the four annoyances: living, disease, old age and death. The four annoyances can also be seen as a way to a more mature understanding of life by the way we accept and respond to them.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Preparing Oneself for Death

Experience is the best teacher: a familiar cliche but also a fact.  Most of our teaching is lecturing  and cramming, using visual aids a great help, but to have the students experience what is being taught has the best chance for retention and bringing about change.

This method of teaching seems to have been more popular years ago, though we now have simulation teaching, which can be done with games, role-playing and other activities. One parish written up in the Peace Weekly had an activity suitable for the month of November, the end of the  liturgical year, and the month during which we think of death, and pray for those who have died.

One Incheon parish had a program to try to experience some of the aspects of death. A large casket was placed in front of the main altar and, while praying the office for the dead, people took turns getting into the casket and for 5 minutes having the lid closed over them. The thoughts and feelings expressed by the participants were mostly positive.

While some were taking their turn getting into the casket, those waiting their turn were writing their last will and testament. These would be offered up at the offertory of the Mass for the Dead that was celebrated at the end of the retreat.

During the  experience, there were many different thoughts that were expressed. One woman came to a realization that not to forgive a person with whom she had a grudge was foolish, for she would be returning to God, and she didn't want to bring the grudge along with her. The president of the Purgatorial Society told the participants that they came into the world without anything, and they leave without anything. He wanted the participants to see themselves as they were without making any excuses, and to appreciate God's love for each of them.

The pastor, after getting out of the casket, said that he felt a great peace while in the casket. He was conscious of the words of Jesus, "I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, though he should die, will come to life; and whoever is alive and believes in me will never die (John 11:24-35).

After the "death" experience, many said there was a new appreciation of God's love in their lives. And when they left the church to go home, they noticed that the trees along the road had become more beautiful.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

What Is Important?

"Yet the solution of the pastoral problems that arise in the diocese must not be limited to organizational matters, however important these may be. There is a risk of putting the accent on the quest for efficiency, with a sort of “bureaucracy of pastoral work”, focusing on structures, organization and programs. These can become “self-referential” for the exclusive use of the members of these structures and will then have little impact on the life of Christians who have drifted away from regular practice. Evangelization, on the contrary, needs to start from the encounter with the Lord in a dialogue founded on prayer. It must then focus on the witness we must bear in order to help our contemporaries to recognize and rediscover signs of God’s presence." These are the words of Pope Benedict to the French bishops on their Ad Limina visit to the Vatican.

An article written for priests does not use the words of the pope but says we are too often sidetracked by accidentals and fail to face situations with Gospel values.  And accountability is often easily passed over. We do not make effort to critique our work with an honest appraisal in order to do it better the next time.

An example of being caught up in accidentals was given in the article:  a parish event was recently held after a great deal of time and expense went into its preparation, in anticipation for a traditional game Koreans play around New Year's day. They have had the event for many years but there was never a review of the event: an examination or evaluation of the results. What did the Christians think about the money raised and the way it was raised? Was the event worth the money and effort? Was the community better for it?

The temptation is not wanting to face the issue squarely because we may hear what we don't want to hear. The priest writing the article does not want the persons responsible for the preparation and execution of  the event doing the evaluation, for their participation in the event will make it difficult for them to be impartial evaluators.

The example he gives is rather insignificant but in many of our pastoral works, the Gospel values and God-given common sense is far from realized in what we do. We fear to know the truth in many cases and prefer to do what we have always done in the way it was always done.

Jesus spoke a great deal about God's kingdom and worked for its realization. It's not a localized space nor something we can see, but God's love, truth, justice and peace: a movement that begins in us and spreads to all of society. This was the nature of the work that brought Jesus to the cross.

This is the work Christians are called to do, but we get bogged down with the accidentals, the structures, programs, buildings and their upkeep, and forget what our  main concern should be: bringing people closer to Jesus

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Practical Theology for the Parish

The Peace Weekly gives us  an account of  a practical theology forum, sponsored by a Korean Catholic research institute, made up of youths, religious and clergy. The article starts with the need  according to the participants to change the patriarchal clericalism  of parish life to more of a networking culture.

Two of the participants, both from Europe, pointed out that new ideas are difficult to introduce into the present parochial system, which needs to be more open, to listen to others, to emphasize the scriptures, and to get involved in society.

Another foreign priest, an authority in ecological theology, said 80 percent of  Catholics live in the Southern Hemisphere and cultural differences have to be kept in mind, also emphasizing that 99 percent are laity and that clerical members have to remember this fact.

In attendance at the forum were theologians from some ten foreign countries discussing prospects for peace in Asia, a new understanding of Church, globalization, present labor issues, spirituality, and justice and peace issues. 

A Korean seminary professor mentioned that Korea has not been equal to the task of developing small Christian communities with the help of the rest of the world.  For the movement to be rooted, he said, it's necessary--if we want to see real change--that those with middle class income not be the  ones that continue as leaders in the movement.

He lists a number of steps necessary for achieving the common good:  to have the teaching of the social gospel affect the way we deal with our society; to change our vision from the Church to society, and to have  a Gospel spirituality.

A Japanese bishop  spoke of the disputes that are bound to occur between nations when they rely on their military power. This reliance on armaments to solve problems has to change, he said, to a culture that sees the importance of wisdom in settling these disputes

If we could do without the military, he said, we would be able to solve the problems of education and the environment, and be open to working toward the welfare of all countries. True peace will come with the spread of movements against armaments and violence, and it is our work to have this spread throughout the world. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Knowing You are Crazy and Yet...

A sister working at an immigration center in the diocese heard someone calling, "Sister." She turned around and a woman whose face she remembered abruptly gave her a hug. The sister hadn't seen her for some time and asked: "How is it that you are here at the center?" "I have gone crazy," she answered. "What is that all about? sister responded.

The sister recounts the full story in a recent issue of the Bible & Life  magazine. The woman, Duit, a Vietnamese immigrant, now a Korean citizen and married with a child, had just returned from the court house where she had petitioned for a divorce. Her husband also was there, standing at a distance, shoulders dropping, averting his eyes from what was going on. A woman relation, very much upset, stood by his side.

The husband was envied, said the sister, for his kindness by many of the women who came to the immigration center to learn Korean. He had bought a house for the wife's family and took  care of the expenses of schooling for her brother. Sister could not understand what was going on, and was determined to find out.

She discovered that while learning Korean at the center, Duit had found a job in a factory, where she met a Vietnamese man and fell in love. More surprising to her was that the man had a family in Vietnam. Since Duit was now a Korean citizen, sister felt there was a possibility that Duit was being used by the man, and tried to dissuade her from proceeding with the divorce. She replied that she was present when the man had called his wife in Vietnam, asking for a divorce. Hearing this additional news, sister was even more convinced that both had lost their senses. As Duit had said, it felt as if she had gone crazy, believing what the man was saying and nothing else made any difference. In her desire to follow her feelings, the hurt she was inflicting on the husband was enormous. The consequences of this behavior, sister was convinced, would be far from smooth.

Sister called the husband shortly after and was told the wife had left the house and had put everything in the hands of a lawyer. The husband said he would now concentrate on being a good father for their child. He was calm about all that had happened and never mentioned what he had done for the family or complained. Sister felt bad for what happened to the husband; his hope that his wife would return made it all the harder to accept. Sister was also concerned on the influence this would have on the other women of the center.

Seeing what happened to Duit, who knew what she was doing was crazy, divorcing a husband who seemed ideal in so many ways, leaving her husband and child for a perilous future, was beyond her understanding, the sister said. She was consoled, however, by the thought that many of these foreign-born women, though mistreated by their husbands, often work through the difficulties in their married life to become good wives and mothers.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Non-Relational Society

The number of people in Japan who are dying alone, cremated without funeral rites, is so staggering, according to a recent article in View from the Ark in the Catholic Times, that it was a topic of one of their TV programs. And businesses have formed to take the place of family at death. Other enterprises will dispose of personal belongings when directed to do so by the dying person, who gives the  details in a notebook the company provides. 

What is happening in Japanese society, says the columnist, is a blueprint for what will happen in Korean society. We are well on our way toward making a relation-free society, the columnist says. A society in which our next-door neighbor can die and no one knows. A society in which one meets another on the road without any sign of recognition.

Relationship is a word that no longer seems to have the importance it once did. Two brief examples were given in the article. The columnist tells us how memories of the past, left in a box, were discarded without a thought by a man whose mother left behind a picture of her son as a baby on the back of his mother. In another case piles of newspapers were outside the front door of a house and nobody seemed to give the sight a second look. When  someone did enter the house, the TV was on, bread was in the toaster, and in the air the smell of death.

Koreans, about 30-40 years ago, at the  beginning of the economic boom, left the relational society of the country for the anonymity of big city life. They left the extended family for the nuclear family, leaving the elders behind. The result was that  people lived alone, died alone and lonely, the natural results of the change in the mores of society. The internet, of course, has made the solitary life easier. But the increase of  irregular workers and the increase of the young opting for the single life will mean we will have more people dying alone and in loneliness.
The individualism from the West has inundated our society; the digital culture has taken over and the young people who have not experienced  the relational society of the past will very quickly forget what community life is all about. Young people have forgotten the traditional customs concerning marriage and look upon whether to marry or not as a purely personal choice.

The columnist asks what kind of society do we want? Many answer that they want to have intimate relationships with others and to enjoy freedom, but this is not easy to achieve. In the  non-relational society, you are lonely but have freedom. In a relational society, you have intimacy but sacrifice is necessary. What is a fact is that we are moving from a relational society into a non-relational society. This is not something we need fear even though it is becoming our reality. The last moment of death, after all, is something we all have to undergo alone--it is a personal encounter.

All religions, seeing death as an important stage in life and by its nature private, give us positive teachings on how to deal with our last days. For a Christian, death is not the end, but a going on to God  and the resurrection. Effort is made to do away with the fear that can accompany death. Dying alone does not fit well with  the teachings of the Church.

For a Christian, it is our duty to decrease, as much as possible, the numbers of those  who are dying alone. After death, paradise is important but Jesus told us that we are in his kingdom while here on earth. Reciting prayers for the dead is a wonderful gesture. But more important is spending time with those living alone and being with them in their last hours.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Death Penalty

In Korea the Church continues to encourage Catholics to work for the eradication of capital punishment. Several organizations met recently, putting aside their religious beliefs and ideologies, to discuss the inhumanity of capital punishment and the  justification for its abrogation.

Ending the death penalty is equivalent to promoting the dignity and protection of life. The Church has continually worked toward this end and, along with many others, raised its voice against the practice. Recently, 175 members of the 17th National Assembly were ready to vote for the abrogation but time and problems prevented the success of the attempt.

The editorial in the Catholic Times noted that popular feeling at present would probably be against abrogating the punishment because of a horrible murder recently publicized, upsetting many and no doubt convincing them that the death penalty is a necessary deterrent to such crimes.

As Christians we base the way we see capital punishment, not on any news story, but on the Gospel teaching. In addition, it has been long known that according to many studies the death penalty does not diminish the number of these crimes.

During the seminar, it was mentioned that fewer countries are using the death penalty than in the past. In 2011, among 198 countries, only 20 continue to use the death penalty.  We are likely to see this trend to end capital punishment continue into the future.

Getting rid of the death penalty does not mean, of course, the end of penalties for crimes. Isolating the criminal from  society is still accomplished by serving time in prison, and for serious crimes, sentencing for life behind bars. The concern of the editorial was to explain clearly the life issues that are involved when a country legalizes the taking of a human life, and why we need to support the efforts to bring an end to this inhuman practice.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The alleviation of pain and disease is the task of the medical profession but obviously there is much that still has to be accomplished. This is especially true, writes a medical school professor, with genetic diseases; the pain of parents of children suffering genetic defects would be hard to imagine.

He mentions a woman who came to his office  for a prenatal exam because her second child was born with an immune-deficiency disease. The child spent half of the first four years of life in a hospital, with  pneumonia, diarrhea, meningitis, and liver problems, finally dying at the age of four. The results of the exam were the same as they were for the second child. Seeing the woman leave the office, the doctor was sick at heart and knew that little could be done to help the woman medically. In these cases, most  mothers opt for abortion.

The mother, devastated by the thought that she was responsible for the child's birth defects, carried a great deal of guilt. The financial burdens on the family are also enormous.

In Korea, abortion is allowed, which of course is contrary to Catholic teaching; only in cases that threaten the life of the mother is the indirect death of the fetus allowed. Efforts are continually made to understand all that is involved in these cases of genetic abnormalities. The doctor mentions that in the past what would have been a death from natural causes, ruling out abortion right from the start, recent medical advances prolonging the life of the defective fetus, paradoxically, have brought more problems for the family.

Legalizing abortion in Korea has not lessened the difficulty for Catholics in making the right decision when told that a child has been born with birth defects. The doctor confesses that although he knows the sacredness of life and the right to life of these fetuses, he finds it difficult to dissuade the parent from having an abortion.

He concludes his article by urging the Church not only to speak against abortion but to find ways of supporting families who make a decision to have the child.

These cases certainly try the hearts of all those involved. The easiest way out of the difficulty is to have the abortion, avoiding the pain, expense and stress of raising a severely handicapped child. Refusing to take the easy way out, because of faith and respect for the sacredness of life, calls for the heart of a martyr. Our belief that something good will come from the sacrifice may ultimately reveal to us dimensions of life not ordinarily perceived.  

Monday, November 19, 2012

My Last Will and Testament

Writing in her weekly column in the Catholic Times, the columnist mentions a talk she gave on death before a parish women's club. November is the  month dedicated to the souls in purgatory, and the columnist tells us the women's group was well informed about what the liturgical month of November meant, but many said they had not thought of death. Daily life is like being on a roller coaster, she conceded, with little time to think of what is not directly in front of us. Death, she said, in the minds of these women was always connected with parents, older relations and friends, but was of little concern to them.

After finishing her talk with the group, she distributed a blank sheet of paper and asked them to write what they would like to see engraved on their tomb stone. On the reverse side of the paper they were to write the names of their family members, and what they would want to leave their family in their will. Judging by the expressions on their faces, she saw that they were mostly confused by her instructions. But they began to write.

After a while, she heard some sobbing from the group, as the thoughts coming to mind were difficult to keep under control as they proceeded to write. The thoughts surprised them; the women had never had the time before to entertain such thoughts because of their busy lives.

She mentioned the epitaph that was left us by George Bernard Shaw, the famous Irish play writer, who lived to be 94. On his tombstone is his light-hearted thought for all to consider when the thought of death seems difficult to accept. "I knew if I stayed around long enough, something like this would happen."

In the past death was seen as a part of life and all would stop to reflect on the death of a loved one. Rites would be at the home. The culture still sets aside days for the remembrance of the dead: New Years Day, the Autumn Festival, and the 105th day after the winter solstice, when families go to the grave sites to eat cold food and conduct the rites for the dead. During these days of festivity the ancestors are in the thoughts of family members, employing rites that bring the ancestors more easily to mind. The Church has very wisely promoted these rites, which continue to mean a great deal to the Koreans.

The columnist reminds us that thinking of death will help us make this Year of Faith more meaningful, especially if we write our last will and testament as a reminder to ourselves of how precious is the gift of life we have been given.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

Women in the Church

Confucian society, without delving into subtleties, is both patriarchal and hierarchical. Simply put, the men are in command. In contrast, Catholicism, even though influenced during its short history in Korea by Confucianism, acknowledges that women have an extremely important role to play in the Church, but that they have not received the support one would expect. And yet the ones who are keeping the parishes functioning as loving communities of service are the women.

The Church has appointed women chancellors in dioceses around the world. They are experts at synods and world-wide meetings, professors of theology in universities, and papal-appointed theologians serving on International Theological Commissions. Because women are different from men, having complimentary natures, this diversity should be reflected in their roles within the Church. However, the teaching is also clear that women's rights and equal dignity with men have to be defended.

In the Korean Church, women have been given positions of authority over many areas of community and parish life. They are parish council members, even presidents of these councils, as well as leaders of other organized groups. The Peace Weekly introduces us to Cho Cecilia, the woman who is the parish council president of the Myeongdong Cathedral parish of Seoul, the face of Korean Catholicism.

Cecilia, the 22nd president of the cathedral, says: "I  will work with my feminine qualities to find those alienated in the different sectors of the parish and work to enable better communication and fellowship within the community."

58.5 percent of the Catholics in the diocese are women. Although there are more women than men in the diocese, only five parishes of the 220 parishes in Seoul have a woman president. Seeing the determination and resolve of Cecilia, the journalist interviewing the new president said we have another model of what can be accomplished by women, following the example of the first parish president, Kang Columba (1761-1801), who died a martyr.

"Women from 40-50 years of age are the majority of those working within the community," Cecilia said. "Although the women are the workers there are few who are members of the parish council. Their numbers have to increase. There had been talk of a woman parish council head for over ten years; that I finally became the president was the resolve of one pastor who worked to bring it about."

The selection as the parish council head is decided by the past presidents of the council who make up the advisory board. They present the names of qualified candidates for the position to the parish priest, who makes the final decision. Having been a parish council member for the last 15 years, also serving as its vice president, she has a good grasp of what is needed and how to achieve stated goals.Her intention is to have more cultural events and to help make the community more vibrant and attractive to the young and the many foreigners who come to the cathedral.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Postmodernism and Religious Life

 The desire for healing, not only of our disease-prone bodies but of our minds and spirits, is so pervasive in Korean society--spawning numerous health gurus and organizations--that it seems to have invaded  every nook and cranny of our society. The Catholic Times makes the healing quest the cover story of its recent edition.

The key to understanding much of what is going on in society can be found, according to the cover story, in this effort to heal ourselves from the unhealthy values of a materialistic, excessively competitive society. We turn to music to give us peace, food to cure our physical ailments, and trips to the country to sooth our troubled spirits. Items that promise healing are big sellers in markets; books on healing are best sellers. People seek to eat healing  foods, and  listen to healing music. During breaks at the office we participate in healing meditation; on weekends we go on healing journeys to famous places, and even when going to the bank, we are sometimes given items that are  meant to heal as bonuses.

Why do we have this emphasis on healing? The cover story suggests that it's a sign that something is wrong in our society: disparity in wealth, high unemployment, the house-poor, the wedding-poor, and the many who are in debt, and the number of suicides. The number of those going to hospitals for stress-related diseases has also increased greatly, even among 20-year-olds, and among both men and women reaching retirement age.

A religious sister at the Catholic university cites individualism, materialism, and consumerism as causes for fatigue, a common complaint because of our fast-paced lifestyle. We no longer can determine the direction of our future. Everything changes so quickly it's difficult to adapt, which moves many to search for healing. Another professor feels the postmodern mindset has added to the problem, with its emphasis on the individual and its rejection of absolute truths, leaving many to question the traditional truths that gave meaning to their lives. 

 Science and industrialization have brought material progress, but in the aftermath we lost ourselves, the sister said, adding that the popularity of internet social networking is an attempt to be grounded, and is at its core a search for healing.

We have been in search for utopia, she said, and it has turned into a mirage,many feeling they have been used, treated as slaves and tools. Consequently, the desire for healing has given us an excess of healing programs with many adverse side effects. The many different marketing methods and goods have not been tested and at times has brought more stress.

Adding to this stressful situation, Postmodernism plays up the individual: a me-view of life.  A book discussing  postmodernism and Christian morality quoted in the article, stated that postmodern ideas are in opposition to a religious understanding of life. Narcissism is the underlying premise for much of our thinking. Ignored are the traditional values that emphasize service to others, the 'we' understanding of relating and sharing with others.

This has given rise to many religious movements. A 1999 Gallup poll showed that 66 percent of the respondents mentioned peace of mind as the reason for their religious beliefs. A sign that the postmodern understanding of life has seeped into our understanding of religion. 

If it is peace of mind that one wants, then religions are irrelevant, their teachings and truths are not important. This is why some  Catholics have sought out practices like meditation, Zen, Yoga, energy training and the like.  It is all part of the same flow. There are some who say the Church has to understand this thinking and adapt to the needs of the time. This tendency in our society should alert the pastoral workers to the work that the Church should be doing. If we are dealing with Catholics who see peace of mind as the motivation for their religious practices, then this will give pastoral workers much to do.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Fifty Years after the Second Vatican Council

Fifty years after the Second Vatican Council there was a need to meet and talk about what has happened over the last fifty years in Korea. Sogang University sponsored a symposium with a number of authorities in their field of expertise to discuss the issues. The head of the sponsoring theological research center  expressed the need to make clear that what the Church wanted by convening the council was renewal. In order to do this, he said it's necessary not to be rigidly tied to traditional structures but to be open to reconciliation and dialogue.

Both Catholic papers gave a good deal of space to the meeting. One participant felt the rapid economic development of Korea, the disparity in wealth, the disappearance of concern for justice, peace and human rights, has brought on serious problems for the society. Within the Church, we have our own problems, he said, and wonders whether diocesan synods are legitimately convened to resolve Church issues or more likely just another reason for a social gathering.  Catholics do not have the leisure to digest what they hear, he said, being too involved in living, He questions whether the Church understand this.

Speaking for the women in the Church, another participant said women did most of the work in the Church, but are often not recognized for their contributions. Leadership in the Church should be shared by those who provide their service to the Church, and it is the women who are doing this, she said. Instead, in many cases, the men are in command and the women in helping roles.

Another participant mentioned the 1957 book by Yves Congar, "Lay People in the Church." Before the council when clergy had absolute authority, Congar made it clear that the laity also had the calling to priesthood, prophet and kingship roles. He wanted to see them given positions of leadership within the parish community.

At the beginning of the symposium, the president of the Korean Bishops Conference said, "It is not only the laity but also the priests who do not realize that the laity at their baptism have received the call to the universal priesthood of all believers. Each diocese and parish should make use of lay charisma and capabilities  so that they may more actively and positively  participate in the work of the Church."

The president also feels that as the Pope works with his bishop in the running of the Church, each diocesan bishop should work together with the other bishops in the work of the Church and not work independently of the Bishops Conference.

The idea of partnership within the Church is something we are hearing more of in recent years: the pope with his bishops, the bishops with their fellow bishops, diocesan bishops with their priests and laity, and the pastors with their congregations. Hopefully, these partnerships will blossom in the years to come. 

Future problems in society, concluded one of the articles, will not arise because of conflicts between the left and right, progressives and conservatives, but between those who are looking for the ultimate meaning of life and those who are not, between those who find it in the scriptures, and those who shortsightedly want to find it in what they see.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Mandate to Live

In Korea like many other parts of the world, we are seeing a devaluation of the preciousness and  dignity of life. The rate of suicides in Korea is just one of the manifestations of this devaluation. In the Kyeongyang magazine  a professor emeritus introduces us to Ham Seok-heon(1901-1989) the Gandhi of Korea, a member of the Quaker movement  and a national cultural figure,  who suffered much for his convictions.

Ham's life pursuit can be summarized by three words: life, truth and peace.  By life he meant God's order to live, all life having this order from on high to burn with life's energy. We are given to participate in the workings of the universe, not solely with a cerebral understanding of how it works but with an understanding that is supported by the living of this reality.

Truth comes when we confront life with all that it brings. The many ordeals of daily living are ways to knowledge and wisdom, and understanding heaven's will

He was not happy with importing words from other languages. 5000 years of Korean history have given us, he insisted, enough words to understand life. If we cannot put it into our words, we should not be concerned. Life is always evolving, and it will have its fullness in heaven. God is participating in this imperfect world we live in. The universe is the root of life, and life is its flower, he said; they work  together for life. In history the will of God will be discovered.

Truth can't help but be related with life. Where can we find truth? For Ham, life is truth. The writer asks how does Ham come to this conclusion? Life at its beginning, he said, always has an order, a mandate. For a Korean this is an easily understood notion. The word life in Korean is made up of two  syllables. The first is the ideogram for life: a sprout from the earth, and the second ideogram signifies an order, a mandate. We have an order from above to live. It's not a choice to live or not to live, but an absolute order from God to live. We do not find truth in all the facets of life. The truth of life is found by going in the direction pointed out to us by God. For Ham, realizing this truth is the journey we are on.

Truth is already within us, according to Ham. Our hearts are in search of the truth; not only for those who search for the good but for those who are doing evil in one form or another. They too are searching for the good but are not finding it because they are looking in the wrong places and in the wrong way. We should look for the truth, says Ham, by living uprightly, with genuineness. The way to truth is found by cultivating our minds in faith, and by being born again.

Striving for truth will bring us more fullness of life. Though being finite creatures and never perfectly achieving this goal in this life, we must not cease from striving, recall the words of Jesus, "In a word, you must be made perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48).

The conditions for the good life are based on our willingness to communicate, to share with others our openness, strength, passion, vitality, information, heart, mind, spirit; when they don't work together life comes to a standstill, preventing the flowering of life, and obstructing the real meaning  of our evolution, with the usual consequences of finding satisfaction in material possessions, in money and in pleasure. In the present moral atmosphere, Ham's words, according to the professor, are like talking to the wind, words empty of meaning for many.

"Life," says Ham, in a brief summation of his thought, "is something that we cannot exchange for the whole universe. Our hearts are what determine whether it's one day or a thousand years that we have lived. We are not on the earth to live for a hundred or a thousand years. But to live for eternity."

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Learning to Live with Cancer

"I am relating with my cancer as I would with a friend. I am not pushing it out of my life and do not hate it." These are the words of the well-known poet Lee Hae-in Claudia, a Sister who has been fighting cancer for the last four years and has learned much in the battle.

She is 67 years old and, as the interviewing journalist notes, still exuding a great deal of happiness despite what she's been through. And still very active, traveling to all kinds of events and giving even more lectures than before the cancer was discovered.

Becoming depressed because of cancer is a normal occurrence, but for Sister Lee it did not happen that way. Every day, every moment, is filled with energy; there's no time to be depressed, she explained. The journalist was mystified by her ability to be happy despite the cancer, and expressed this to the poet. Sister said she had the same feelings the journalist had mentioned when she met Mother Teresa of Calcutta back in 1994 and asked her, What she found the most difficult thing in her life. Mother Teresa said it was when she felt Jesus was not there. The journalists scolded her, sister said, for not  asking Mother Teresa when she was the happiest, instead of when she was unhappy. But Sister Lee began  talking  again  about her own periods of difficulty and how they had made her stronger.  

Giving  oneself completely to living the religious life is not easy and becoming famous has brought even more difficulties. Things that I didn't want were happening, the Sister said, and she feared  being exposed to the world. She was not comfortable traveling and giving lectures. But after 30 years of being lauded for her poetry she has grown used to it, and can now harmonize her religious life and her public activities.

After the discovery of colon cancer, her life was bound to change a great deal, she admitted. And the thought of being kept in a room and being treated for the cancer did enter her mind, but it was not what happened. She did not have to wrestle with her inner feelings and took it in stride.  When she went for chemotherapy, it was like going on a picnic. When she gave talks to those battling cancers, she said their tears were a consolation to her. The cancer has prompted much of her poetry; without it, she says, she would not have written.

Those who have met sister only by reading her poetry believe she must be a quiet, meditative person; those who know her personally, however, see her as a strong and joyful person.  She mentions that as a child she was very self-conscious but realized that this was perceived as being smug. She entered the convent and  worked at becoming  a joyful person, where she has found, she says, the happiness she was looking for.

What is your key to happiness? the journalist asked her.  "To live each day as the last and to live each moment to the fullest," was the response.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Autumn Visit

North Korea Autumn Visit
(October 16th – November 1st, 2012)

The following is a short report on the most recent visit by the Eugene Bell Foundation to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea).
This autumn’s trip took place from October 16th – November 1st. Our delegation was invited by the North Korean Ministry of Public Health. It included Dr. Stephen Linton; his wife, Cecilia Lee Linton; Dr. Justin Seung, medical director and tuberculosis specialist; Fr. Gerard Hammond M.M., Eugene Bell Foundation board member; Fr. Michael Roncin MEP, Fr. Christopher Berard(Lyons Archdiocese) and Mrs. Leslie Horne, Seoul Foreign School teacher.

We picked up our visas at the DPRK Consulate in Beijing
on October 15th and took the Air Koryo flight to Pyongyang the next day. We were met by a 7 member team composed of officials from the Ministry of Public Health, tuberculosis specialists and technicians. The North Korean team traveled with us during the entire sixteen day visit. As usual, our delegation stayed at the Kobangsan Guest House, a facility located about 20 kilometers northeast of Pyongyang operated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

On our first day we visited EugeneBell’s warehouse at the Central Medical Depot in Pyongyang. This guarded facility is the main distribution point for medications donated to the Ministry of Public Health. We arranged for transport of medications and supplies to six of the eight multi-drug tuberculosis treatment facilities supported by EugeneBell. Because arranging separate shipment to distant facilities is difficult, we loaded medications and supplies for the two most distant facilities on our own trucks.

EugeneBell has been assigned to North Korea’s two northwestern provinces (North and South Pyongan) where approximately 1/3rd of the population lives. We have approximately 800 multi-drug resistant tuberculosis patients under treatment this autumn. EugeneBell’s program is the only one available in North Korea and reaches only about 5% of the multi-drug resistant tuberculosis patients in the North Korea.

We left for the Sunchon MDR Tuberculosis Treatment Center, North Pyongan Province at 4 am the next morning (October 17th) and did not get back to the Guesthouse until after 10 pm that night. Travel to and from another T.B centers took even longer due to rainy weather and bad road conditions.

At each center we visit the procedure is the same. Our team collects sputum samples and takes X-rays of all registered patients. Sputum samples from prospective patients are tested using the three GeneXperts machines we bring with us. (The Taejon Diocese, Maryknoll and Seoul Foreign School each donated one of these high-tech machines. Within two hours GeneXperts are able to determine whether someone has tuberculosis, and whether their tuberculosis is resistant to the primary drug for treating tuberculosis.) New patients are selected according to the results of these tests. While the other members of our delegation help with collecting sputum, weighing patients, copying medical documents, and taking pictures to confirm patient identities, our medical director consults with the local North Korean physicians to determine which patients have completed treatment. We hold a ‘graduation ceremony’ for all patients who are being discharged. One of our final tasks is to distribute another six-month supply of medication to all old and new patients.

Completing all of these tasks takes at least nine hours and makes for a very long day as we process approximately 100 patients at each center. Because tuberculosis is an airborne disease, all of our work with patients must be done outside as it would be dangerous to be in close contact with highly-infectious patient’s in-doors. This is the primary reason our visits take place in spring and autumn. This visit we only had two rainy days and the weather did not turn cold until our last day, for which we were grateful.

Multi-drug resistant tuberculosis is a difficult disease to treat, particularly in patients who have been ill for as long as most North Korean sufferers. Our cure-rate has risen from about 50% to 60% and we expect results will continue to improve as the program becomes more established. As a consequence, these visits have both happy and sad moments. There are many deaths and some patients do not respond to the medications we bring, despite our best efforts. Someday we hope to have hospices for those who fail treatment but as yet we can do little for them. On the other hand, we are encouraged when we see cured patients discharged to return to their families in good health.

Ambassador Edward Pietrzyk invited me to celebrate Mass at the Polish Embassy on Sunday October 28th. He sent invitations to other members of the 24 diplomatic missions and members of the international community in Pyongyang. There have been six Masses offered at the Polish Embassy since 2010. Attendance has ranged from 48-62 Catholics and Protestants, including children. After each Mass the Ambassador invites everyone to a luncheon reception. This time the new ambassador for Sweden attended the Mass. Though he is not a Catholic, he invited our delegation to visit his Embassy. His wife is a fervent Catholic.

On The Feast Day of All Saints we said our goodbyes to our North Korean Ministry of Public Health team members. We also thanked the employees at the government guesthouse who go out of their way to make our visits as comfortable as possible by providing meals for us no matter how late we return from our visits to treatment centers.

Although we have just returned, we are already making preparations for our next visit scheduled for April 2013. Eugene Bell’s multi-drug resistant program may expand to North Korea’s east coast next year.

Catholics are an important source of support for the Eugene Bell Foundation’s work in North Korea, both for funding and for personnel. Due to North Korea’s reluctance to allow South Korean citizens to visit undeveloped areas, the Foundation depends on non-Koreans who speak Korean to staff its delegations. Persons with these qualifications who are willing to volunteer their time are not easy to find. I hope more Catholics; particularly members of religious communities in the Republic of Korea, will become involved. This is a unique opportunity to minister to people who suffer from a deadly disease in desperate need of help.