Thursday, September 19, 2013

Happy Chuseok

Today is Chuseok, the Autumn Moon Festival, which is somewhat similar to our Thanksgiving day. It is a celebration of the new harvest and a remembrance of ancestors and family members who have died. However, it's not uncommon that family problems will arise during the celebrations. A front page article in the Peace Weekly on the festival mentions a divorce that was occasioned by the festival.

The husband, a Buddhist who was following the traditional Confucian rites for ancestors during the Festival, would end up fighting with his wife. The wife, a Protestant, when asked by her husband to visit the family home on a Sunday in observance of the festival, would refuse because of her own observance on that day. And on a weekday, she would not participate in the rites even though the husband told her she did not need to observe the traditional bowing. This finally came to a head, and they decided to divorce. 

Because of the importance of these rites in the lives of most Koreans, the Catholic Church faced many difficulties. In the beginning all Christians followed the rites, but still having doubts about whether they should, some Christians on a trip to Beijing asked Bishop Gouvea what was the proper thing to do. They were told the Confucian rites were forbidden, which set in motion many problems for the Church, and confused many Christians. When Paul Yun Ji-chung and James Kwon Sang-yeon, two of the early Christians, burned the ancestral tablet and performed the Catholic rites instead of the Confucian rites when the mother of Paul Yun died, they were arrested and killed by decapitation, becoming in 1791 the first two martyrs of the Korean Church.

In 1939, the Vatican re-assessed the issue, and Pope Pius XII authorized Catholics to observe the ancestral rites. Later, the general principle of admitting native ceremonies into the liturgy of the Church, whenever possible, was reinforced.  The rites were seen not as idol worship but as a cultural tradition, and therefore not against Catholic teaching.

The Second Vatican Council's document on the Liturgy states that the Church respects the gifts of the various races: "Anything  in their way of life that is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error, she studies with sympathy and, if possible, preserves intact. Sometimes, in fact, accepting such things in the liturgy itself, as long as they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit"(Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy #37). With this as background, the Catholic Church of Korea recommended that these rites of filial piety and cherishing the memory of the dead be incorporated into liturgical practices.

Since Korea has many religions with diverse religious practices, it's necessary that this be appreciated, acknowledged and respected. A priest member of the Bishops Committee on Relationship with Other Religions mentions that we have to respect the beliefs of others and not force one to do something they don't want to do, like bowing. The ancestral rites should be a way  of expressing love for the family and of strengthening the family bond. Catholic  members should be mediators to overcome some of the problems that may remain because of the different understandings concerning the rites.


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