Saturday, November 30, 2013

What Do We Mean By Mercy?

Firing an employee is always difficult, both on the person fired and on the person doing the firing. Writing in the Kyeongyang Magazine, a religious sister recounts what she heard at a seminar regarding the firing of a worker without warning and the experiences of his family after he lost his job. The speaker at the seminar mentioned not only what had happened to the worker's family, but noted that the company had been asked questions concerning the fired worker. 

Here is an example of two different social classes in our society and, in this situation, in opposition to each other. The speaker was in a  position of trying to heal the scars inflicted in the firing and the sister provides us with the details.

The president of the company, who was responsible for the mass firing of  employees (including our worker) in the restructuring of the company, was interviewed. When he  learned about the difficulties of the worker's family, he was deeply moved and did help the family. He  said that before hearing from the interviewer, at no time did he have any thoughts about the problems families of fired workers have to face. His concern was the success of his company, the workers didn't enter his thinking, which clearly shows that the merciful attitude is missing in much of life. How could a mass firing of workers be done, she asks, without any thought given to the impact such firings would have on both the worker and his family?

The callousness and indifference of companies to hundreds and thousands of fired workers has left  many workers without hope and desperate--all of which is barely acknowledged by those responsible. The sister sees this as a result of  original sin. Immanuel Kant said that the best way to confront evil is to see the ethical properties of  an action, a position that requires reflection, a decisive decision, and the courage to refuse to participate in injustice.

To bring this thinking into our programs of teaching is nearly impossible, the sister says. The young will follow what they have seen, and follow the examples they have been given. The future does not look bright. The worship of the almighty dollar is part of our present culture and we have embraced it, she says, whole-heartedly.  Expressions of mercy in society is shown only by a few and this is not getting better.

In Acts 4:32, we have the example of Church: "The whole community of believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed any of their possessions as his own; but rather shared all things in common." In St. Paul,1 Cor. 11:21,  we hear the harsh words spoken to those who failed to share and have mercy on the poor. Showing mercy is the essence  of pastoral work.

She concludes her article by saying that often when these discussions come out in conversation with Catholics, there are those who  very gently say that more than action, what is needed is prayer. Isn't prayer the loving answer to the moaning that we hear in creation? she asks.  In our faith tradition we have always examined the fruits of contemplation, prayer and  reflection. There are times that blood, sweat and tears are demanded, always showing sympathy for those who are suffering. And we should remember, she says, that we pray not only to feel good but to emulate the way Jesus prayed and acted. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

Preparing for Baptism

Writing on the spirituality page of the Catholic Times, a priest recalls a conversation with a person who had finished his period of study and was ready to be baptized. Because of a previous commitment on the appointed day, the priest invited the young man to come to the research institute where he works, and they spent a great deal of time talking about the life of faith.

He asked the young man what did he find during the period of instruction the most inspiring. He said it was during the week when his own pastor was on retreat and another priest was giving the instructions that he was moved the most.  And why was that the case, the priest asked him. Was the lesson more interesting or easier to understand?

The  young man waved his hands in denial; as a matter of fact, he went on to say, he did not remember anything that was said.  Even when the priest carefully explained the instructions, many times he had no idea what was being said. "What moved you then?" the priest asked. Nothing that was said, he answered, but after the talk, the priest bowed his head and apologized to the group he was preparing for baptism. He had no idea what was in their hearts or in their heads, he said, for he had been baptized as a baby. Growing up, he considered the Church his second home, and after high school, he went to the seminary. "I have no idea what you people are going through," he told them, "but I will pray that you will have  joy living in God's  love and as a member of society." These words, the young man said, brought tears to his eyes.

When the priest had acknowledged to the group the difficulty of understanding everything being taught, the young man said he was grateful. It made it easier for him to admit  that the more he learned the more difficult it became to understand the lessons. And when this difficulty was directly addressed by the priest, it  gave him the strength and courage to continue. 

Though there are words and teachings that are difficult to understand, it is important that the catechumens be encouraged to open themselves up to the graces being given. When they are given encouragement, they are more receptive to the faith life being given, bringing more understanding as the newcomer to the faith is experiencing the joy and movements of the spirit.

While it's always gratifying to help those who are entering the Church for the first time, it's sobering to realize that the number of church-going Catholics has decreased in recent years, and those who have been baptized are not finding the life of faith as satisfying as they anticipated during their years of preparation. One reason is that our culture does not enforce what the newcomer has learned, and because the temptations are many. Better than the lecture method--though the easiest--to convey the teaching would be to enable the catechumen to put into practice in daily life what was learned in the classroom--as it was being learned. It might be a better preparation in dealing with an unfriendly culture,and surviving the many temptations that may seem even more daunting than they were before entering the Church.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Love Felt in Silence

A priest writing in the Bible & Life magazine recounts an incident that happened when he was in middle school. It was a Sunday afternoon and he had made plans to see a movie with a friend. He waited for over half an hour and when the friend did not show up, he made a call to the boy's home from a public telephone. A man answered the phone who he thought was his friend's father but it was his own father. He was so taken up with the prospects of seeing the movie and being disappointed when his friend failed to meet him that he had called his own home number. The father didn't recognize his son's voice nor did the son recognize his father's voice. When the father heard the name of his son's friend, he said that it was the wrong number for no one by that named lived there.

They say that those who have a loving relationship can tell by looking into the eyes of the other and know what is in their heart. And here we have a son talking to his father and failing to recognize each others voice.  Does that mean there wasn't love between them? the priest asks. He tells us that even despite what happened he never doubted his father's love. To make judgements about the existence or the absence of love in such cases is wrong, he says.  

Because they were not able to recognize the others voice, does that mean it wasn't  a close relationship? No, that is not the case, the priest insists. There was no doubt about the love they had for each other.  Why?  Simply because in that situation there was no indication by what had happened that there was a lack of love.

On radio recently, he said there was a public service announcement, "Don't say 'I want to see you.' Refrain from sending text messages with 'I love you.'  Don't press 'good' as a  comment. There is no need for such comments." The point that is being made is that there is no need to convey those messages without the person being present. Whenever you are driving a car simply keep your full attention on driving and not on sending text messages. This is the way to express that love.  Love should be sensed without feeling the need to do something because of circumstances.

He reminds us of the story of Mary and Martha from the Scriptures.  Martha showed  her love for Jesus by  working in the kitchen. She wanted Mary to show that same kind of love. There is no question that Martha was showing love for Jesus but in those circumstances Mary, by doing nothing, was also showing love by only listening to Jesus and she, as Jesus pointed out, had selected the better way. 

We often say that when we do nothing for the person we love, that is not love.  So we expect those who love us to show that love by what they do for us.  But love can be shown without any action or words. I can also love another in a particular circumstance by merely thinking in silence, by closing my eyes. Doing nothing for love can be a powerful silent doing within our hearts. Circumstances will determine how it will be expressed. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Cynicism Not a Healthy Response

A cold sardonic smile, a sneer, a lack of interest would all serve as the meaning of a Korean word which in English would be translated as cynicism. A seminary professor feels that this cynicism has entered our society and with it we now have a code word that he believes will help us understand what is going on, even within the Church.

In his seminary classes he uses a book that considers cynicism to be a defense mechanism often used in Korean society. History has not been kind to Korea, having suffered many trials such as the last days of the Chosen dynasty, the Japanese occupation, the conflict in ideologies after liberation, the War and the political dictatorship. It was cynicism, says the professor, that  helped the Koreans endure during those difficult years.

However, he would like the word to include much more than merely taking a disapproving attitude to what is   happening around us. When we are not pleased with events, we are often content to criticize without making any effort to change the situation, he says, as we stand off to the side, arms crossed to signal our indifference, complaining. This attitude is not just seen among individuals but also in groups and within religion.
Religion, wherever it's found, is frequently surrounded by cynical responses, and even in Korea religion is not off limits. Scandalous incidents in which  religious people have  been involved, sensationalistic news reports and the subsequent gullible public response nourishes this cynicism. Distrust among people and the piling up of these examples influences the  thinking of the individual, and finds its way into the  Church.

When a religion is not sensitive to changes in society, seeks to solve the problems in traditional ways, and is not open to healthy give-and-take dialogue, lack of trust is fostered within the community and among individuals. As a consequence, the decisions and teachings of the leaders will soon be greeted with discontent, and members will gather in twos and threes in cynical debate concerning their lack of trust in the leaders. It is a serious situation, the professor says, where the very identity of the Church will be in crisis.

It's important, he believes, to distinguish between authority and authoritarianism.  Authority is needed whenever a group comes together for some shared objective. Authoritarianism, which is blind to the wishes of those governed, is never needed. The professor feels that the symbols for rightful authority are disappearing. The respect and obedience to king, teacher, and father have mostly disappeared. Lack of discernment in what we have accepted from the West has weakened our sense of the sacred and religious authority. But authority has to earn respect, for the response to the demands of authority will often hinge on what is seen.

Lack of discussion and information and the presence of irresponsible words within the community frequently breeds cynicism. We need, says the professor, more discussion on the problems that face the Church, and more trust that the Holy Spirit is still directing the Church. He mentions that in the Acts of the Apostles, the infant Church picked an apostle to take the place of Judas, and they did so by selecting him by lot. A strange way to us in the 21st century, but that was and is the way of the Church. There is a trust in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and no better way to combat the tendency to cynicism than remembering the trust of the Church in providence and the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

In Christ We are all Equal

"We are all equal in Christ" is the headline, appearing over an article in the Bible and Life magazine, written by a priest working in a poor area of Seoul City. He reflects on the words he heard continually in the seminary: in Christ we are all equal, only the duties are different. The reason for emphasizing this was to keep the seminarians from getting a big head, from wanting to be treated as special, and to keep them humble, he reminds himself.

The priest wants to live this truth, and is the reason, he says, that he has chosen to live among the poor, especially the weak and the alienated of  society. However, there have been unexpected problems he has learned to face by bringing to mind the words: "Follow all the rules of  etiquette,  don't just speak for appearance sake, and don't go beyond what is necessary to be polite in words and actions."  He doesn't want those who relate with him to  fail to say what is in their heart. This is, he believes, what makes for a natural relationship. 

By confronting the difficulties that are likely to occur in any relationship, change does come, he says. He doesn't want to down play the vital role of the priesthood, this is understood, but he believes in the importance of being treated as an equal in the daily activities of the parish. In meetings,  the expectation is to have differences of opinion and conflict, which is frequently expressed by such statements as "That is your opinion, Father, but isn't it true that your opinion is not always right?" The objective of both parties is the same, but in the process there is bickering over whose opinion is right, but inevitably we reconcile, he says, laugh, move on, and the words become heartfelt and friendly. "Father, would you please do this? Could you give me that? Please warm the coffee--all very human ways of relating with one another and greatly desired.

Those not of the community on hearing such interchanges, often express surprise. How can one speak in that way to the priest? And yet, the priest is  thankful with this comfortable exchange. When there is something to be said, it is said simply and directly. It keeps him from seeing himself, he says, with any pretensions.  It's natural to dislike hearing disagreeable words when we are involved, but with more understanding of what caused the difficulty the feeling quickly passes. 

His own experience is that this kind of relationship builds confidence, which further motivates people to speak from the heart. However, as happens in any community, there often develops a pecking order, with those at the bottom not speaking up. They are disregarded and do what they are told. Helping this part of the community to take their rightful place is a continuing task,  he says.

Society, our parents, or others in authority often are the ones giving us the role and pecking order we will follow in life. In past times, it was the nobles, the ordinary folk, and the slaves. This was considered normal, and everyone knew their place. The order is still there without the labeling. Today it may be money, power, age, honor, and the like, often accepting these with care, but at times in a servile manner.

Why do we fail to appreciate the worth of others no matter where they are ranked? Perhaps, the priest suggests, because we are easily dragged into following the crowd.

He concludes with a sigh, not knowing precisely what it is that we must do to achieve our ideal relationships. Yes, we are all equal in Jesus... He loves us all... We are his disciples. And yet we follow the rules of the world rather than that of our Lord, and even within the Church we have the "high and low" standard. He doesn't want to get involved in this, and though saddened by it, he manages, he says, among all the difficulties, to keep smiling.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Wider Understanding of Evangelization

One of the respected elder priests, monsignor Tjeng Eui-chai, has published the second volume of The Common Culture of  Humanity. In this followup volume, A New Way of Seeing Korea, he examines the role of the Church in the 21st century. 88 years old and still very active, he continues to lecture and express himself with passion on what the Church must do in today's world to stay relevant. Both Catholic papers reviewed the book, as did the secular press. 

The place of the layperson in the Church comprises the first section of the book, which focuses on the type of layperson described in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. In the following section he discusses how best to work with the young, and suggests that the area around the Cathedral parish, one of the most popular for sightseers, should be developed with an eye to attracting more of the younger generation. The third section deals with the current problems facing the Church: empty pews, loss of the young and a shift to eclecticism within the  Church, along with his proposals for solving the problems.

It's imperative, he says, that the Church give more attention to the young and help them to become interested in work of service to other peoples of the world, in the manner of St. Paul, who went out to the world to speak the message of Christ. He advocates for a one world culture, by which he means; coexistence, mutual help and  common  public undertakings. The Catholic Church should be a leader, he says, in bringing this about, stressing the importance of the Church's mission in accomplishing this goal--a goal best achieved not by talk but by action.

Korea for many years suffered under colonization and totalitarian rule, and we became accustomed, under these trying conditions, to using words like justice and human rights. Now, having fully returned to our traditional culture, the theme would be "life" and "love." The  foundation for this will be life: the search for the good life for all, which is the blue print given to us at creation.

Protestantism, he says, helped to give Korea prosperity; Catholicism, a hundred years earlier, gave the Koreans a new way of thinking. And like a prairie fire, it  brought about the  death of many, and  the hermit kingdom's door was opened to the world.

He mentions that the young and the intelligentsia are not interested in religion, and consequently the Church is being pushed from the vital life of society. In 1891 when labor was struggling with serious problems, Pope Leo 13th, in the encyclical Rerum Novarum (The Condition of Labor), spelled out the Catholic way of solving the problem. In the United States Monsignor Ryan, in the 1930s, with this teaching did much to alleviate  some of the problems of the depression. The Catholic Church in Korea also should be prepared to do something similar with a  wider understanding of evangelization to help many live a more human life.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Laypeople Within the Church

Last Sunday was Layman's Sunday, another opportunity for the Church to encourage the laity to take their rightful place within the Church--the sleeping giant.  A professor, whose talk on the current state of the layperson in Korea was picked up by the Korean Catholic "Now Here" news service, expressed the hope of the Church that our Catholic laity will soon have a prominent role to play in Church affairs.

He prefaced his talk with two questions: How do we make Catholicism believable? And what is the culture asked of our laity? In answering these questions, he said that the number of Catholics in society cannot be overlooked and, as a consequence, we must take into consideration that the role of the laity has  grown in importance. He believes that laypersons are not sufficiently conscious of this change and what it means in terms of their place in the larger society. They still remain concerned only with the parish and the groups to which they belong, he said.  

The professor prefers to use the word "culture" when describing today's Catholic layperson rather than the word "spirituality." He would like the laity to focus more on justice and peace issues, on ethical issues in harmonious dialogue with others, and on the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, with the goal of working together with other religions for the good of society.

The emphasis on the layperson's cultural background and understanding is intended to promote  a more believable Church, with better communication and training on the part of the laity. This cultural attainment is not only a desire for knowledge--though there never is a place for ignorance and shamelessness--but a desire to be truly human. The laity needs a  grounding in the Scripture and in the traditions of the Church, as they engage other religions and the whole of society in dialogue and with the communication proper to the times, so that there can be more active participation in works for justice and the common good.

When we have  this growth among the laity, the quality of the sermons will change, and the way the parish is run will improve, he said, adding that "the call to follow our Lord is not only addressed to the clergy and religious but to laypeople. The laypeople  have the same call to holiness, and are no less required to be free of the unlimited desire for power and riches."

Laypeople are the ones who are to work in society doing the work of Jesus and have not been exempted, he pointed out, from striving for holiness. The clergy must not diminish with their authority the rightful duties of the layperson as he endeavors to work within society and its often daunting cultural guidelines. The clergy prepares the laity by working with them, but more as teachers than as active workers within the culture. Our mission requires the laity to be full of vitality, as it works for the sanctification of society. And there is, he said, "no  glass ceiling stopping us."

Today is the last Sunday of the liturgical year and we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. All of us at baptism have received the mission of king, prophet and priest. Today is a good time to reflect on how well we have lived up to this calling when we entered the community of the Church.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Regular and Irregular Workers

A bishop, writing on "faith and finances" in the Catholic Times, reminds us that inventions and and even significant historical changes often depend on the level of economic development achieved and on the availability of money to support these changes. At times, the bishop says, this state of affairs creates more pain than the pain that accompanies our last days on earth. In the 20th century alone there have been two world wars, and even today there is fighting and mass killings in many parts of the world which have been influenced, the bishop believes, by the world of finance.

The Church sees this financial world as a way of making our lives more fruitful and as a tool to participate in the work of creation. Finances are now so deeply involved in the operation of the world that there is no way for humanity to separate from the effects of this world. The only solution is to search for a right relationship with it, and a correct standard determining what is good and what is evil, what is true and what is false.  Catholics can find this in our social teaching.

The bishop mentions that there are many areas where we have serious difficulties. He cites the example of the establishment of the irregular and regular worker distinction at the time of the 1997 International Monetary Fund bail out. To help with the Asian financial crisis, corporations were allowed to employ irregular workers who could be hired or fired at the will of the company. Even after 10  years we continue this policy.

The policy has caused many problems, says the bishop. Those who are working in fast food restaurants, convenience stores and big markets are often irregular workers. In fact, over half the workers in the country are irregular workers, who often are faced with deplorable working conditions and a lack of security.

Even if they do the same work as a regular worker and have the  same qualifications, their pay, on average, is 1,000 dollars less a month. The principle in the workplace is not one of sharing but of efficiency.  It is not finances for the person but the person for the finances.  We know this is not the way it should be, and with this kind of thinking the situation will continue to get worse.

Many of us are not familiar with the plight of the irregular workers and until this changes, the situation will not improve. The bishop ends his column with a wish that the Christians  become familiar with what is going on in the workplace. All wish to live a life of happiness of both body and spirit, and when we see this injustice and inhuman treatment of many of our workers, we as Christians should be on the forefront calling for changes to a financial system that will be more interested in sharing the wealth for the many than in amassing wealth for the few. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

What do we Mean by Success?

Deciding on what course of action to take when contemplating the work we intend to pursue after college, students frequently are confronted with a choice: select the work that will bring in the most money or select what the heart wants and will bring them the most personal satisfaction. In the Peace Weekly, a college professor mentions meeting a student on campus, who openly confided her worries to the professor. With a double major in business administration, she looked forward to the future but did not feel she would be happy in that field. At this stage in the educational process, she told the professor she felt she lacked the courage to change. Should she continue in business for a successful career, she asked, or should she do what her heart wants? That was her plight.
To be successful, you must have the grades and specifications that are better than others, consequently, you sacrifice sports and time socializing with the opposite sex, to have more time for classroom work and the library. Even with this routine there often is not enough time for study. It has been some time now that colleges have lost their image of being temples for learning and have become training schools for jobs. The romanticism of the campuses has disappeared. Everyone, seemingly, is madly  searching for a successful career. The professor wonders who is responsible for this headlong desire for success in the marketplace. Is it, he asks, the way to happiness?

Interestingly, the word for "successful career" is made up of two Chinese characters (出世), meaning "leave"  and "world." Originally, the word in Buddhism meant "to leave the world," riches and honors were not considered of much value. The word also has another meaning of "gaining fame in the world." The first character keeps  its meaning but the character for world depends on the meaning given.  Those who have a negative meaning for the word would be Buddha, Chuang Tzu and Plato. Buddha found the world full of hardships; the quicker we rid our self of this pain the better. Life for Chuang Tzu  was like an excrescence on the body, a boil we have to excise; for Plato the body was a prison that needed to be left behind. For all three, the world was a fetter from which we want to free ourselves.

The second  meaning--making a name for oneself in the world--would depend on the value one seeks. Today, making a name for oneself is the more often understood meaning of the word, in most instances. A third meaning for the word would be to seek another world much better than the one we are currently living in.

It seems, says the professor, that the early Greeks also saw making a name for oneself in the world as the ideal goal in life.  Seeing life as a place to gain possessions would help to influence this kind of thinking. This was one of the reasons, the professor notes, that oratory was so highly valued with the  Greek sophists, who were not interested in truth or falsehood, but in what would benefit oneself.  Confucius considered this thinking self-flattery.
But no matter how you understand the word, "world," it's the place we live in, we can't, the professor reminds us, completely separate our self from this world. We can only move from one place to another within it, giving up one thing for another. One man who was volunteering in a free lunch program for the elderly said something which moved the professor deeply, " I am a  person who has been fed and now I'm feeding others; I have succeeded in life." In the same way, says the professor, a person who has overcome the world has succeeded.  When a person's thinking changes, when we can relinquish the things of the world which imprison us, and we can freely choose among many possibilities, then our opportunities to find happiness will also increase.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Be More with Less

"The more empty we are the fuller we can become," writes the Catholic Times columnist, in the View from the Ark, as he reflects on what can be learned when having less of something often means having more of something more valuable.  The Church during this last month of the liturgical year focuses on those who have died, and all of nature, the columnist says, seemingly directs our thoughts in the same direction: trees shed their leaves, the harvest is over, the fields are  bare, and yet, he wonders, why do we humans continue to hold on to what must in the nature of things be relinquished.

No matter how good the food is, for instance, eating too much of it will give us health problems.
Thoughts that we will have more strength or that we will be able to do more with a fuller stomach is not a concern is it?

We are all familiar with the Aesop's  fable in which the North Wind and the Sun have a contest on who will be able to have a pilgrim remove his clothes. It wasn't the cold strong wind but the soft warm sun rays that won. The manifestation of strength, of successfully achieving a worthy goal, in such fable stories frequently comes from where we least expect it.

In front of an infant no one clenches their fists. They smile and bend down toward the infant and want to embrace the child. Isn't this the strength that disarms and changes a person? Doesn't this strength come with seeming weakness? he asks.

"You know that the men who are considered rulers of the heathen have power over them, and the leaders have complete  authority. This, however, is not the way it is among you. If one of you wants to be great, he must be the servant of the rest; and if one of you wants to be first, he must be the servant of all" (Mark 10:42-44).

"All streams flow to the sea because it is lower than they are. Humility gives it its power. If you want to govern the people, you must place yourself below them. If you want to lead the people, you must learn how to follow them"  (Lao Tzu, The Tao Te Ching  #66).

God's kingdom is like a mustard seed, small and weak, but it becomes big so that the birds can come and nest in the branches.  Strength comes from God to  the lowly and weak and empty. It is when we are empty that we can be filled with what God gives. Jesus emptied himself. (Phil. 2:7).

Why do people climb mountains? the columnist asks. Isn't it to empty ourselves of what is inside.  We sweat and pant to get to the top of the mountain. We are out of breath, our legs are sore, there is little strength left, and inside there's a feeling of emptiness. But suddenly, from the outside, comes a fresh feeling of energy.  A new feeling of strength, replacing a seeming weakness.

Why do people go to the ocean?  Perhaps many do to see the expansiveness of the view, no obstacles, as far as the eye can see, spoiling what can be seen. Our spirit feels this openness  and becomes larger and more embracing.

Humans during the winter months put on more clothes; the trees shed their leaves and become bare. In the world of humans, the strong are not those who gather the most material things or have the most armaments, the columnist says, but those who seemingly have little and yet  possess God.Keeping this in mind, he would like us to meditate on death, and on the lessons to be learned from nature, during this last month of the liturgical year.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Rejoice in the Hope Within Us

A religious Sister on vacation at her family home went to the train station with a brother-in-law to pick up a younger sister and her child, who was in first-year elementary school. The brother-in-law asked them if there was a place they would like to visit before returning home. The religious sister, whose  pastoral work was in a big city, without hesitating, said she would like to see the ocean. And 30 minutes later they arrived at a quiet spot on the ocean. A columnist of the Catholic Times would like us to reflect on what the Sister learned on her trip to the ocean.
Leaving the car, they went down to where the ocean waves were breaking onto the shore. The Sister, forgetting the often troubling encounters with the people she was counseling, and her tiredness, felt her breathing slowly deepen and the cares of the day lift, as she began to enjoy the new surroundings. The child had picked up some pebbles and ran to his aunt to show her what he had found: a dolphin, a smiling ghost and a chestnut. He explained each one with great enthusiasm. To the child they were not only pebbles but something more. The aunt, moved by his enthusiasm, went looking for differently shaped pebbles, like those her nephew had found, but all she was able to see were large and small  pebbles. She realized it was not because she didn't have an imagination but because she was accustomed to seeing the real thing: a butterfly was a butterfly, a dolphin was a dolphin. The objective reality was all she could accept. What was seen had to match the fixed idea in her head.

The child's uncluttered mind and lively imagination, however, was able to see all kinds of shapes and images, while the aunt was not open to these images because of her fixation on what was real.

This kind of thinking, the columnist believes, is indicative of the way we relate with others. People we judge good, for instance, make us feel comfortable and secure, and we consider them helpful to us. With our fixed ideas we make quick judgements on those who lack what we deem important and not helpful, putting them aside as not deserving much interest or attention. The fact is, the columnist says, many of these supposedly unhelpful people would have been of great help to us.

With a little concern for spotting the gifts these people have, and giving them more respect, support and encouragement, they would have developed, he says, into different persons, more helpful persons, if we had  stretched out our hands to them. Before God we are all imperfect and weak, but God does not disregard us. Nor does he see us as immature, a mistake, or incapable of great things. God sees us not only as we are but as the person we can become. Like the child,
God   sees  the possibilities, the hope that is in us,  and rejoices.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Catholic Lay Movements in Korea

A lay theologian writing in the Kyeongyang magazine introduces us  to a number of lay movements within the Church that have not followed the examples of the religious orders but are working within society, living a new type of spirituality. The article briefly sketches four of these communities working in Korea.

The Women Lay Auxiliaries of the Missions was founded in Belgium, in1937, by Yvonne Poncelet, with the help of Fr. Vincent Lebbe, a missioner in China. The spirit of the movement is focused on Gospel values: a giving of oneself to others, with complete love and always with joy, both as an individual and as a member of a community. Their faith life beckoned them to enter society, and whatever society they entered, they sought to assimilate its culture and its way of thinking so they could express God's love and evangelize and liberate using the cultural guidelines the people were familiar with.

!956 was the year they entered Korea and from the very beginning, they have been running a boardinghouse for women college students. They have established welfare centers in many areas where they offer adult education and lectures on the culture.  In 1970 they began to accept as members unmarried women, men and couples.

The Focalare Movement, started in 1943 by Chiara Lubich (1920-2008), a young college student from  Northern Italy, was intent on putting into practice the gospel message that "God is love," and with a small group of friends began helping the poor of the city devastated by war. In a very short time, the movement spread to 184 countries and entered  Korea in 1969. Members take the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They are composed of single men, women and families.

Based on the ideal of unity that belongs to Christianity, members try to understand other religions, respect  their values and  peacefully live with them. This is the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. They realize that love resides in the heart of all, just like the heart that beats within all of us. With the expression of that love made manifest in society, they believe society can be changed.

Each year in different countries there are Mariapolises, where the members come together to experience the Gospel teachings, to discuss the movement and spirituality. This lasts only a few days, but they also have a permanent Mariapolis, in Loppiano, Italy, where 800 people from 70 countries live peacefully together, and yet have different languages, different beliefs and customs--a living testament of what is possible with the human family. The Mariapolis model has spread to other countries.

Catholic members from Germany, together with Protestant members, have gone to Africa to work with different tribes to help them to trust and work together. These experiments are also going on in other parts of the world, showing that the Gospel message can be lived in trying circumstances.

The Taize Community, an ecumenical movement  was started in 1940 by Brother Roger, in his mother's homeland France, in the area of Taize.  Because he saved Jews during the war, he was expelled from France to Switzerland. which was his country of origin. It was during this period that he gathered together those who wanted to live his form of community life. He returned to Taize in 1944, and in 1949 there were 7 who decided they were going to live the celibate life together.

In 1977, Cardinal Kim, while in Hong Kong, met Brother Roger living in a slum area, and was instrumental in establishing the movement in Korea. In September of this year they had a meeting of young people from East Asia, sponsored by the Taize brothers, a meeting for reconciliation and truth. These ecumenical meetings have spread to other cities.

In 1986, when John Paul visited Taize, he said "Taize is like a fountain. The pilgrim comes, for a short period, satisfies his thirst and moves on. The brothers of the community with prayer and silence and drinking the waters that Jesus promised have  tasted God's joy, experienced his presence, answered his call, and give proof to the love of God in their  parishes, schools, and places of work, living  in service to their brothers and sisters."

The Saint' Egidio Community, started in Rome in 1968 by Andrea Riccardi and  two of his high school friends, who began by helping  the poor in the area in which they lived.  Like the apostles, they  begged our Lord to teach them how to pray. Each of the members, in the evening, leave their families and places of work  to meet and pray together, strengthening their bonds  and committing themselves to live according to Gospel ideals.

The community is currently in 73 countries and has over 50,000 members. Even if they do not  promise to become a member, they can be friends of the movement. One of the goals of the movement is to work for the abolition of capital punishment,  They have served as arbiters between countries, helped to promote dialogue and reconciliation between people from different cultures, and are  helping to eradicate Aids in Africa. They were  invited to North Korea to begin a soup kitchen for the needy young and old.

The community arrived in Korea in 2013 and offered their first Mass at the Jeoldusan Martyrs' Shrine in Seoul. It began with 20 members. Every second Wednesday during  the month they meet for a prayer meeting, and every first and third Saturday of the month give their time, either individually or as a group, providing necessary services in their area.

Although these movements are independent of each other, they are made up of mature Christians dedicated to doing the same selfless work for the Church. In Korea there are also some home grown movements, the article points out: the "Village on the Mountain," and' the "Living like Jesus Community." The Gospel message is one unifying message, but the laypeople in these movements are showing us different aspects and colors of the Gospel that will give more light to more people.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Doing Your Best at Times is Not Enough

A  lion and cow fall in love. They met  accidentally in the woods and  intuitively knew they were made for each other. They overcame their biology, their different origins and culture, and decided to marry.  Obviously, the families on both sides were greatly upset, but no one was able to dissuade them, and with the animals from each of their worlds gathered for the joyful event, they celebrated their union.

Every morning the cow would gather all the the best environmentally friendly and organic grasses, and prepare the lion's meal. But the lion did not even once raise this food to his mouth. Never did he ever think of eating such fare. The lion on his  part spent time  preparing the best Korean meat that he could find and put it before the cow. The cow took that expensive piece of meat and buried it.  Each day this would be repeated: The lovingly prepared meals would be offered but not eaten, and both of them began to get weaker, lost weight, and quarreled. They stopped talking to one another and the relationship ended. As they were readying their belongings to depart, each said to the other: "And yet I did my best for you."

This parable, written by a priest for the Life & Bible magazine, is similar, the priest says, to the comments from a book on prayer by Fr. Thomas Green S.J. where he makes a distinction between working for God and doing God's work, and explains the distinction with an example using blue cheese. A person asked a friend what he would like for his birthday;  blue cheese was the answer.  But the person felt this was not enough of a present for his friend, and wanted to give something  better.  What should be done, Fr. Green asks: Give what the friend wants or give what the person thinks is a better present for his friend?  When I give my friend what I think is a good present this is working for God. Giving the friend what he wants (in this case, blue cheese) is God's work.

We can be working for God whenever we are doing our best. This is good work and admirable, he says, but what we think is good work is not necessarily what is going to unify us with God.  When I do what I think is the best for God, it may be my best, but not the "blue cheese" that God wants.  We give God the best present we can imagine and think this is  wonderful, but if God likes blue cheese and we give him something else thinking that we have done our best, we may be pleasing ourselves but have we really pleased God?

We think that love means giving something to the person we love. We do many things for the beloved and say we have done our best. That is a fact, but giving our time, money, and devotion, even when done lovingly, without complaint, does not always bring the best  results. Despite these efforts, quarreling, complaints and emotional scars often develop that can't be easily washed away--and yet they are the results of this love.  Where is the problem? the priest asks. Why does this happen?  It is because the love, he says, is expressed in the manner we think best, believing we are doing everything for the beloved. With the sacrifice, altruistic  attitude and feeling satisfied with what was done, we miss the opportunity of doing what should be done.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

A talk by a  priest-professor on the place of repentance in our lives, written up recently in the Peace Weekly, brings a new understanding of how to incorporate the way of repentance as we go about our daily tasks. It is important, the professor says, to experience repentance as committing ourselves to making a change in our lives. This commitment, he is suggesting, will make us value religious repentance and make it more meaningful for us, helping us see the harmony of religious truths.
Like the changes in our physical and mental growth, there is also a way of describing growth in our spiritual journey. The traditional  way of expressing this growth was to talk of purification, illumination and unity.  In our own spiritual journey, we have to keep asking ourselves: What does spiritual growth mean in my daily life?

Spirituality, a word appearing more often recently, has been given different meanings; what is necessary, he says, is to determine what meaning we have given the word. Traditionally the word meant encountering God and participating in his life, or listening to the Holy Spirit in our hearts. Gradually the meaning has changed, so that today it most often means the search for the meaning of life in terms of some sort of meditative practice, or any examination of ones inner life, to uncover the connection that exists between the world and ourselves.  
Repentance is the word that has been used to mean change.  In the  history of theology, repentance was a basic teaching. Repentance meant one left the world of non-belief to one of belief, left a life of sin for a life of avoiding sin, and thus sacramentally approaching the unity of the  community of the Church. Repentance helps us to enter the life of grace and  experience a  religious change.

Using the words of Scripture referring to "being born again" (John 3:3), we can peer into the mirror of Jesus' life and see ourselves following the life he has shown us.  We are called by Jesus, and by our answer of repentance, of accepting change, we become his follower. That is our identity. We have been saved by Jesus in the present moment, and we try to live this new life.

Jesus  asked us who do  we understand him to be? There is no objective answer to the question. The answer comes from  the kind of religious life we are living--not  merely from our individual identity but from what we have been called to do. We need to search, the professor says, for the reasons he calls and instructs us, as members of his Church. 

And what  is the Church? We have been called to be members of his Church to work together to overcome the evil we see in the world, as Jesus did. We are to go toward God and the world with a  special type of attitude, which is the attitude that Jesus had.  As we go on this journey with Jesus, having repented, having changed--"being born again"--our experience of God will also change and deepen.                      

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Defying the Law of Gravity

A pharmacist writing in the Bible  LIfe magazine recalls a time,15 years earlier, when he saw a woman selling beondegi  (steamed or boiled silkworm  pupae seasoned and eaten as a snack). She was the last in a long line of street vendors, and stood out from them by her youth and very attractive face and beautiful smile, and by being hunchbacked.

Every time he was in the area, although he didn't care for beondegi but moved by her situation and beautiful smile, he would stop to buy a bag. One day on passing by, he saw the woman hugging a small child who looked very much like her. It was the only time he had seen the child during the one year he had  walked passed, nor did he ever see a man by her side, who might have been the father. The woman selling vegetables next to her told him that one day a man appeared, made the child, and was never seen again. 

The women appeared to be sickly, and he heard that because of tuberculosis her right lung was removed.  She had been diagnosed in need of an operation, but because she had no one to take of her child, Neri, she delayed the operation until she collapsed and had to be taken to the emergency room of a hospital. The vegetable vendor, who was living by herself, took the child until the mother returned  from the hospital.

Even after she was released from the hospital, she had to spend six months in a sanatorium. The vegetable vendor had a stroke and Neri was taken by the  woman selling noodles. Neri would be sitting in the corner of the diner bustling with customers. The pharmacist felt sorry for the girl and arranged for her to spend her day in a study hall run by religious sisters. He would pick her up and bring her back to the diner in the evening. It was at this time that he heard that Neri had a gift for ballet. A teacher, noticing her innate talents and bodily flexibility, offered to give her ballet lessons.

In her third year of middle school, she had the opportunity of going to a high school devoted to the arts. But she would often miss her lessons. Along with her teacher, he would scold her. "I have leukemia," she replied. He did not want to believe her, but it was true.  For two years she was in treatment and with the anti-cancer drugs, she developed hip problems, was operated on, and the aftereffects brought the loss of feeling in her toes. Her doctor told her she would have to give up her dream of being a ballerina.

The mother tried everything: folk remedies as well as more conventional treatments. And she did finally get back the feeling in her toes, and last year was accepted in a college department for ballet.  The pharmacist would visit her as she  worked part-time outside the city, teaching women aerobatics, and in the evenings teaching health dancing to workers; her part-time work filled her with joy, she told him.  

Now, 15 years after the pharmacist first saw Neri's mother, she still has her beautiful smile but  no longer with only a tray selling beondegi. She now has a covered wagon and sells, along with the beondegi, rice cakes and rice wrapped in seaweed. The pharmacist ends his reminiscences with a quote from the economist Karl Polanyi: "Real truth is not the law of gravity but the bird who ignores the law and flies high into the sky."

Friday, November 15, 2013

Controlling Access to the Digital World

Korea, one of the leaders in the internet world, is now experiencing an increase in internet addiction because, some are saying, the necessary preparations were lacking. And the Church has been slow to address the problem and was not even aware of the problem, according to two recent Catholic Times articles. The issue was brought up in a Seoul parish forum that discussed the evangelization of the culture.

All agreed  that internet addiction is hurting society and is a big obstacle to the work of the Church. There are city centers that are working with the problem, but help should also be found in dioceses and parishes, said one of participants at the forum. He recommends, alluding to the statements from the Vatican on Internet ethics, that there should be educational courses available to help students deal with digital  addiction and, for those already addicted, camps and other programs to help them discern the problems that come along with the  digital world.

A professor who has made a study of the subject said that because the digital equipment is becoming more sophisticated, and with smartphones interacting with all kinds of programs, it will make the addiction all that easier. He said there has been a decrease in the numbers of those addicted, but those who are most prone to getting addicted, he said, are getting younger and are the more vulnerable in our society.
A religious sister has written a book Worrying Makes Me Beautiful, which treats some of the problems encountered by the young in our digital world. She reminds her young readers that knowledge is not the same as enlightenment. "When I have the experience of looking into myself and go beyond the worries, I gather the strength to overcome the difficulties of life."  
Afraid of loneliness, and with excessive worry, and by searching for instant happiness with alcohol, music, movies and games, we are missing, she says,  the opportunity to meet with dignity, without the artificial add-ons of material possessions, the world we live in. When we try to rid ourselves of stress by indulging our senses, it is, she says, like eating junk food continually and hoping for health.

The young can easily get addicted to the instant satisfactions they receive in the digital world. Without putting the digital world in its proper place in our lives, one can not hope for happiness,  she says. The only way of overcoming the addiction is living spiritually.

She recommends that the young not listen only to the voices of consolation and healing that come from outside themselves but to listen to their inner voices. She asks them to put aside their smart phones. When we become lost in the digital world, we forget to think about who we are, what we like or dislike, and frequently cease to care about really knowing others, interacting with them without our social masks. The digital world allows us the false comfort of ignoring the spiritual hunger we have inside us.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Autumn Visit to North Korea

Autumn 2013 Visit to North Korea

We just returned from another visit to North Korea with the Eugene Bell Foundation. Far from ordinary, this visit was unique in several important ways.


We were in North Korea for three weeks; one week longer than our usual visits. Our delegation was the largest yet  As you can see, this group included two priests from the Guadalupe Missioners, one applicant to the Paris Foreign Missioners as well as Father James Lynch Vicar General and myself from Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers; five priests in all. All were clearly identified as missioners on Eugene Bells application for visas. We received our usual hardy welcome from our North Korean hosts.

       During this visit our delegation was able to visit four new multidrug resistant treatment centers, bringing the total number of centers supported by Eugene Bell to twelve. Our work has also expanded geographically (please see the attached map) and now covers the western half of North Korea from Shinuiju City in the north to Kaesong City in the south.

What follows is a brief description of a day at a treatment center.


Our rural centers are located anywhere from two to five hours from the capital city of Pyongyang. Electricity is scarce in the rural areas so we had to make maximum use of daylight, meaning we usually left the hotel before daylight and did not get back until well after dark. Most roads are unpaved. When we arrive at a treatment center (a small village of simple cottages that house patients and staff) our vehicles park in the widest open space we can find. Local staff gather around the vehicles (Maryknoll provided a new bus this year) to help us unload boxes of medication and other supplies. They also set up tables and chairs, and help move the delegation’s portable diagnostic equipment into a nearby building. Our digital X-ray machine (a Catholic donation) is set up outside or under a tent as needed. Portable generators provide electrical power. Boxes of patient nutritional supplement are transported by truck and stacked in the courtyard ready for inventory. Each patient is provided two boxes of nutrition packets every six months and extra is also available for the staff. We count and collect empty nutrition packets at every site.

Patients currently receiving treatment always greet us warmly. Many of their faces are familiar. It is always good to see them but also sad to hear about those who have died since our last visit. The program provides each patient with a box of medication that has their picture on it along with the name of the donor who supplied the funds for their treatment. Our visit reminds them of the people who have sacrificed to provide the expensive medications needed to treat their multidrug resistant tuberculosis. About one third of the program is supported by Catholics. It is both a privilege and a blessing to be able to tell patients how much Catholics care about them.

While we are setting up for our day’s work, a large crowd of people seeking treatment gather around. Many have been sick with tuberculosis for years and have failed several courses of treatment with regular tuberculosis medications.  They and their families know time is running out and there is no place else to turn.

It takes about thirty minutes to get ready. By this time, a team of North Korean doctors and delegation members have set up the four portable diagnostic machines. These are expensive state-of-the-art equipment is capable of diagnosing multidrug resistant tuberculosis in a matter of hours. (three of our four diagnostic machines were provided by Catholic organizations). Documents and records are arranged on one of the tables and a joint team of local caregivers and delegation members are in their assigned places. We are then ready to start processing patients. Patients are registered, weighed, photographed for identification purposes and X-rayed. Those who are being processed for admission are watched carefully as they provide their first sputum samples. I do my best to encourage those who are so weak that they have a difficult time providing a sample for analysis.

Local medical staff line up people from a waiting list, people who have a long history of TB and who they suspect suffer from multidrug resistant tuberculosis. A member of the delegation walks down the line, counting off the number of people who will be allowed to submit sputum samples for testing. This is heartbreaking work. We have to limit new applicants because of limited capacity. As a rule, we are able to admit an average of 30 new patients per center per visit. But sadly, many have to be turned away. Those who do not get a chance to submit a sputum samples for analysis will have to wait six months for another chance…if they live that long.

Testing the sputum samples from new applicants for admission takes at least six hours. Those who are confirmed to be MDR-TB sufferers will be admitted to the program late in the afternoon and given their first box of medication. 

As soon as new applicants are processed, patients currently registered in the program provide sputum samples that will be taken to a lab for analysis. Regular monitoring of a patient’s progress is an essential part of the program.

After several hours the diagnostic equipment registers the results of the first batch of tests. It is a sobering time for everyone, particularly the applicants. Which of the applicants will test positive and receive lifesaving medication on this visit? Who will test negative and fail to gain admission to the program? Sometimes someone with a long history of TB test negative because they couldn’t provide a good sputum sample that day. We try to encourage those who ‘fail’ by promising to test them again next visit. It is painful beyond description when this happens.

While the diagnostic machines do their work, our delegation’s medical director consults with local staff, reviewing each patient’s records and charts. Meanwhile other delegation members are organizing a ‘graduation ceremony’ for those who have completed treatment and are ready to go home. Delegation members, particularly priests, are asked to address the ‘graduating patients’, many who have been under treatment for two years at the center.

After the graduation ceremony all registered patients (including newly-accepted patients) receive a box of medication that will be used by the medical staff to treat their disease until our delegation’s return six months later. Then a careful count is made of all medications and supplies provided on that visit. By this time it is usually almost dark. Sometimes we finish by flashlight before boarding our vehicles for a long drive back to the hotel and a very late supper.

As you can imagine, our days are long and hard but rewarding. Treatment outcomes (the percentage of patients who make a full recovery) continue to rise. Thankfully, we have been able to double the size of the program during the last two years. We will have more than a thousand patients in the program by next spring. But sadly, we are able to treat only a small percentage of the multidrug resistant patients in North Korea today. Giving all MDR-TB sufferers a chance to recover would require a much bigger program.


While we have focused primarily on Catholic-sponsored tuberculosis work in North Korea, we have also attempted to provide religious services for the foreign residents in Pyongyang. Gratefully, this work, which was begun four years ago, has also grown markedly during the past two years. During this time (2010-2013) I have be able to offer 9 Masses at the Polish Embassy and one at the Swiss Embassy.

        On this visit I was able to say Mass for more than seventy members of Pyongyang’s foreign community on October 27th. This was more than double the number of participants that attended this spring’s Mass in April. Not all participants were willing to sign the attendance sheet but a far greater percentage of attendees (Catholics and non-Catholics) were willing to identify themselves openly than ever before, suggesting a gradual decrease in uneasiness with attending religious services.
        Progress in the spiritual nurture of Pyongyang’s foreign residents would not have been possible but for Edward Pietrzyk, the Polish Ambassador to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. He has made a special effort to make his embassy available for the Mass on every one of our visits. Ambassador Pietrzyk is retiring in a few months, however, and it is not clear at this time whether this hard-won tradition will continue. Needless to say, this vital effort should continue.

Father Gerard E. Hammond
November 8, 2013