A Mission Evolving With Korea

Fr. Donal O’Keefe
February 21, 2007

The Columbans’ work in South Korea has been adapted to include outreach programs, building bridges among churches and cross-cultural ministry.

On October 29, 1933, 10 Columban priests disembarked from a boat in Pusan, a port city in southeast Korea, becoming the first group of Columban missionaries to set foot on the Korean peninsula. Seventy years later, the event was commemorated at the Columbans’ Korea headquarters in Seoul. On November 23, 2003, Columban priests, Sisters, lay missionaries, associates, benefactors and co-workers gathered with friends who have worked with us over the years to celebrate the anniversary.

Columban Father Donal O’Keefe blew out cake candles during a 2003 celebration of the Columbans’ service to Korea. Also pictured are (from right) Cardinal Kim Suh Hwan, Bishop Joseph Lee (the auxiliary bishop of Seoul), Paul Murray (Ireland’s ambassador to Korea) and his wife, Elizabeth.

Columban Father Donal O’Keefe blew out cake candles during a 2003 celebration of the Columbans’ service to Korea. Also pictured are (from right) Cardinal Kim Suh Hwan, Bishop Joseph Lee (the auxiliary bishop of Seoul), Paul Murray (Ireland’s ambassador to Korea) and his wife, Elizabeth.

The Korea of today, of course, is unrecognizable from when it was an exploited colony of Japan in the early 20th century. Today, South Korea is a confident country contributing in many ways to the world community with an energetic local Catholic Church playing a role within the universal Church. South Korea’s transition to democracy has sparked the growth of many new groups seeking to promote the inclusion of people formerly on the fringes of Korean society.

The work of Columbans in Korea also has dramatically changed: the traditional parish work, so much a part of our history, has all but disappeared. Today, much of our ministry is helping with the formation of Korean missionaries, promotion of cross-cultural mission through education programs, a mission magazine and a website (www.columban.or.kr).

We have become an active collaborator with the Korean Church in reaching out to other cultures. The composition of the group is now radically different from the first group that arrived 70 years ago. Today, lay missionaries are part of the Columban group working in Korea in their own culture.

A concrete symbol of that change was the building of a new mission center at our headquarters in Seoul. This building has rooms for meetings, education programs, offices and our mission magazine. The center was opened and blessed at the celebration of our 70th anniversary on November 23, 2003, which is St. Columban’s feast day.

In his congratulatory address, Cardinal Kim Suh Hwan noted the faith of a group looking to the future as symbolized in the new facilities. He also thanked the Columban Society for its contribution to the Korean Church, especially to the Seoul Archdiocese during his 30 years as bishop.

Our Special Contribution

Columban priests ordained in 1951 upon arriving in Korea (from left): Frs. P.J. McGlinchey, Denis Kearney, Michael Morrissey, John Dunne and John Lynch.

Columban priests ordained in 1951 upon arriving in Korea (from left): Frs. P.J. McGlinchey, Denis Kearney, Michael Morrissey, John Dunne and John Lynch.

In the dioceses of Seoul, Inchon, Suwon, Chunchon, Kwangju, Pusan and Jeju, about 40 Columban missionaries work in many ministries, especially in our outreach work to migrants and people with special physical and mental needs. We also try to be there to support people in a society that has become one that is constantly on the move.

The presence of our expatriate missionary brings new perspectives to the Christian scene while creating bridges among churches. I suppose that is the special contribution of Columbans in Korea.

Columbans in Korea are also actively participating in spreading the Korean Church to other cultures. About 35 Korean missionaries under the Columban umbrella work in other cultures. These include Columban lay missionaries, priests, students, associate priests and Sisters.

Of the many groups facilitating cross-cultural mission in Korea, the Columbans alone offer the unique and significant opportunity to laypeople to work as part of a multicultural missionary society. These missionaries now work in places as diverse as Chile, Myanmar (Burma), China and Japan.

These are colossal changes for any group. I, for one, could not have imagined the changes that would take place in Korea or with the Columbans when I first set foot here in 1976. The transition has not been easy for us. The changes, while bringing new hope and life, also bring fear and pain as we try to let go of old ways of doing things.

For some, it seemed as if the Society was turning in on itself, developing its own programs and losing the old missionary principle of “doing the job and moving on.” For others, the Society was inserting itself deeper than ever as it invited local church personnel to be part of Columban mission.

Remembering The Fallen

Korean lay missionaries in Ireland (from left): Song Min Sook, Lee Sun Ju and Chong Son Suk.

Korean lay missionaries in Ireland (from left): Song Min Sook, Lee Sun Ju and Chong Son Suk.

During our 70th anniversary celebrations, we looked at how we managed those changes as individuals and as a group. We watched a presentation that helped us recall the past, capturing the different eras and the comrades no longer with us.

We looked at the Columbans who died in Korea from Fr. Dan McMenamin, the first Columban to die in Korea in 1935, to John Nyhan, who died in January 2003. Many of these men are buried in Korea, a part of the soil of the land we have all come to love. We saw clearly the decrease in our numbers; the “graying” of the missionaries from the West.

At the same time, we also saw the new face of the Society through images of the young people in formation, the Korean missionaries working overseas and the faces of our Korean benefactors and co-workers.

Throughout all these celebrations, the words that kept coming to mind were the verse from Isaiah (43:19) as he spoke to a people who also were facing radical change some thousands of years ago: “Do not dwell on the past or remember things of old. Look I am doing a new thing. Now it springs forth. Do you not see?”

Columban Father Donal O’Keefe has been in Korea since 1976 and is the past director of the Korea Region.