From Wilderness to Vineyard: The Evangelization of Jeju Island

Fr. Malachy Smyth
December 3, 2010

Fr. Patrick McGlinchey, a native of Donegal, Ireland, has spent all his missionary life on the Island of Jeju about eighty miles off the southern coast of South Korea. Fr. McGlinchey finds the island a good place to live, with challenging work to do and the freedom and opportunity to do it.

After many years in Korea, Fr. Malachy Smyth is now living in Ireland. Fr. McGlinchey continues his work on Jeju Island.

Ordained in 1951, he is amazed and bemused when he remembers how things were when he first arrived on the isolated island more than fifty years ago. The way people were living and the whole economy could easily be compared to the 18th century. The residents of the island were extremely poor, and the farmers were working the fields with wooden plows and oxen. The farming methods were very primitive, and the island itself was mired in poverty. It was a great challenge to try to introduce new farming methods as a means to help the islanders improve their lives economically.

Fr. McGlinchey and parishioners

In short, it was a challenge to apply the commandment “to love your neighbor as yourself,” in a modern way. Instead of concentrating on the traditional charitable works like feeding the hungry through the Catholic Relief Services, as missionaries did during the Korean War times and afterwards by way of free food and clothing, Fr. McGlinchey tried to zero in and encourage the people to make use of their unused resources, like the vast areas of unused land available, in addition to improvement of their methodology in farming and livestock raising.

Fr. McGlinchey didn’t learn these methods in the seminary; the Columbans didn’t offer courses on animal husbandry! At the time, the traditional approach was to go in and set up parishes in mission lands, and they were very badly needed at the time. We were instructed to buy land and set up churches, houses and convents and to run programs of catechesis for the waves of catechumens coming out and for those wishing to be baptized. When Fr. McGlinchey arrived, there were only two parishes on the entire island and his was to be the third.

Jeju Island

Unfortunately, there were only a few Catholics, about 25 in all, but there were about 25,000 very poor farmers in the place. Something had to be done for the farmers since preaching would not feed them. It was obvious that talking to these people in their poverty about Christ was not enough. While Fr. McGlinchey went about building outstations and hiring Sunday school teachers, it was clear that there was a lot more needed than that.

Up to that time, it wasn’t expected that we missionary priests would get involved in technical skills and technical knowledge, so it wasn’t taught in the seminary then. But Fr. McGlinchey was lucky; his father was a veterinarian, and he had learned a lot from him. As a boy and young man, Fr. McGlinchey heard his father giving advice to farmers. Of course a lot of it was common sense, but he recognized the importance of bringing in experts from the outside to help with the work.

The farmers were poor and very decent people and they used to give him barley, as there was no rice on Jeju at the time. Barley was the standard meal, and the farmers gave him chickens and eggs as well even though it was stuff they needed for themselves. Really, it was a measure of their kindness and generosity to give from what they needed rather than from a surplus.

Countless changes have taken place on the island since Fr. McGlinchey first arrived, although the local customs and traditions have mainly survived the rush to modernize. There is a network of new roads like a spiderweb all around the island with the tourist industry very much emphasized.

Catholic Church on Jeju Island

Despite the modernization, there are a lot of old people left on their own and that is why we started the old folks home and nursing home on the island. At the present time, there are 75 people in residence in the facility, and there are long waiting lists. In addition, there is a hospice that can accommodate 29 people which we run without government involvement or funding. The service care we offer in the different facilities attracts a lot of interest in the Church and as a result quite a number of the family members go on to show an interest in becoming Christians.

They start coming out to the Church following their experience of a friend or family member being cared for at the hospice. Reflecting on the historic missionary approach, Fr. McGlinchey stated that, “You know, the longer I’m here the more I believe our missionary approach was wrong. We were all about catechetics and teaching catechumens, when it should have been about evangelization.

This has shown up in these times of modern living when lots of people have fallen away from the Church: it really shows they were never fully evangelized by the missionaries. They were taught doctrine and baptized and confirmed all right but that was the end of it. As Korea modernizes this is showing up as a basic flaw in what was the missionary policy. In later years, it is true, correct emphasis has been put on evangelization, and even with the decline in missionary numbers great efforts have been put into this approach. Here we have tried to reach out to all the people: the poor, the old, the sick, the homeless, the unemployed.

The people see that reaching out as physical proof that we are trying to live the values of the Gospel that Jesus asks us to bear witness to. Down the centuries if it was all about theology and doctrine and catechetics without the practical witness, the remnant wouldn’t have survived at all. Jesus Himself gave us the lead in all of this reaching out to all kinds of people, He wasn’t parochial, and He wasn’t limited to narrow confines. Our projects here—the retreat house, the youth center, the hospice and hospital facilities—all try to reflect and mirror that same concern for the whole person. That’s what I like to call evangelization.”

Fr. McGlinchey visits the sick

There have been many young people from Ireland who have come to help with the different works on the island, and they are just wonderful. Sometimes there is criticism of young people and their lack of generosity and faith practice, that they are not going to Mass on Sunday and that they are falling away from the Church.

However, at the same time, these young people are putting into practice what Christ talked about. They have come and worked for months at a time at different tasks on the farm. The way in which they got on with the ordinary workers here, the young people were evangelizing in their own way, in their words and work and living.

They showed their concern for the people, they attended Mass and they weren’t trumpeting anything, just caring for others.

The Columbans have enthusiasm, and they have the love of Christ, which made them leave home and come out to places like Korea. There is comfort in the thought that the people who built the Titanic were professionals, and the person who built Noah’s Ark was an amateur. That speaks volumes and reminds us to not to be afraid to change and move with the needs of the times. Perhaps if more people were willing to do this we wouldn’t be seeing large swathes of people falling away from the Church here or in Ireland or anywhere else.

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of Columban Mission.