I came to Korea in 1963 along with six other Columban priests. We should have been the first class of Columbans to go to language school, but when we arrived in Korea we discovered that language class in Yonsei University had already started! So we had a teacher come to the Columban House every day to teach us.
We suspected that the Regional Director of the time didn’t want us going to Yonsei University because it was a Protestant University. The teacher we had coming to us was excellent, but it meant that we were in the Columban House all day. We weren’t outside experiencing and learning about life in Korea for ourselves, rather we were learning about Korea through the eyes of the Columbans living in the Columban House. That wasn’t a good way to start our missionary lives in Korea.
For example, when we first arrived here we were told to avoid Korean food. The older men had all experienced getting sick from eating in restaurants, so were wary of eating kimchi etc. But the first time I went out for a meal I was pleasantly surprised at how delicious Korean food was.
My first parish appointment was to the island of Huk San Do out in the east China Sea, and then I went back to do some more language study, this time in Yonsei University. As an Irish Catholic priest I underwent something of a culture shock. As a language student I experienced Protestant teachers doing their best to help me be an effective missionary in Korea. They wanted this Catholic priest to be the best Korean language speaker I could be! This was a real eye-opener for me. Coming from Ireland in the 1960s I thought Protestants were the enemy! It helped me realize how flawed our thinking was at that time.
After Yonsei I was sent to Jeju island. Jeju was terrific! Huk San Do was a great learning experience but living there all year round was tough. The only reason for sending a curate to Huk San Do was to keep the parish priest company. In contrast, in Jeju we were five priests living together. My apostolate was the student apostolate, and I loved working with them.
The time came for me to be appointed parish priest, and I was looking forward to continuing in Jeju only to be told that I was appointed to Huk San Do, again! This time there was a middle school there, built by a Columban, Fr. Sylvie Curran, which was a marvelous achievement as most Huk San Do people couldn’t afford to send their children to school on the mainland. The problem was getting teachers, especially female teachers. So I invited some young women from Sung Shim Womens University to help out. Like Peace Corps workers, a group of four women came and stayed for a year. It was difficult and challenging for them, but the following year another group came and the next year after that and so on. This time round on my visit to Seoul I met three of that first group, 43 years later we met once more! Great memories…
When I was in Jeju I remember a couple of students who came to me, and we talked and talked, but I couldn’t find out exactly what the cause of their troubles was. After I left Jeju I heard that one of them had committed suicide. This raised the question in me – what was I lacking that I couldn’t help these people? I was a priest who couldn’t answer the needs of people who came looking for help – why? So I became interested in studying counseling.
Our Regional Director sent me and fellow Columban Fr. Liam McCarron to study CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) in America. What is CPE? It was started by a Protestant minister who when he was younger became ill and was sent to a mental hospital. He made a full recovery but realized that during his time in the hospital all his minister friends who came to visit him didn’t have a clue about his needs as a patient and how he was suffering. They were good men, but they were terrible as pastors in a hospital situation. So he set up a program (CPE) that was to teach ministers about mental illness and train them in the experience of pastoral ministry by ministering to the sick. CPE started in mental hospitals but was then practiced in general hospitals too.
However, Fr. Liam and I knew none of this when we first started. We didn’t know that the hospital we were staying in was a mental hospital. Our first morning there at breakfast we ate in the patient’s dining room in our black suits and Roman collars, and the woman beside us took all her clothes off and started rolling round on the floor! We weren’t prepared for this and indeed our supervisor at the end of the year said to us that he was stunned by how little we knew when we started. But being Columbans, we stayed until the end! One of the things we learned is that mental illness can be seen as a spiritual disease and so the path to mental health should include some form of spirituality.
I returned to Korea and was asked to work in St. Mary’s Hospital in Seoul as there was a vacancy there. At that time, just like Ireland, hospital chaplaincy was seen as a place where only old priests or sick priests went to work. However, St. Mary’s Hospital had a medical school as well, so I very much enjoyed my time there working with both patients and medical students. After a couple of years some Seoul diocesan priests asked me if I would teach them counseling. My first reaction was, “Can I do this through Korean?” So I decided to do a short course program of CPE (10 weeks). It included visitation of patients, writing reports, group meetings and individual supervision. To my great relief the feedback was positive, and the fact that it was all done through Korean gave me great satisfaction.
Thus I felt a desire to become a full-time supervisor, and after further studies, I became a CPE Supervisor. And it’s great 40 years later to come back to Korea and meet the priests and Sisters who studied CPE in those early days. I left Korea, because I was invited by a hospital in Ireland to start a CPE program so I went there and ended up staying 25 years! I am now retired. I see that the rules for CPE in Korea and CPE in Ireland are the same. It’s all about the well-being of the patient. The key to being a good hospital chaplain is that the person wants to be there, they want to work in the hospital as a chaplain. Nothing can replace the experience of being with patients and listening to them. It’s not the kind of work you can force someone to do.