During the years between 1972 and 1975, I was pastor of a parish in Seoul, Korea. On Friday mornings I would go to a large prison nearby to visit the death row prisoners. Among the prisoners that I would visit there was one whose name was Matthew who was a very happy go lucky individual. He was from North Korea. The story that he told me was that he came down as a spy to the South, and in his travels around South Korea he discovered that the people were living much better than they were in North Korea. He told me that he used to sneak into the homes of the farmers while they were in the fields and get food to eat. He was very surprised to see that they had bags of rice and other foodstuffs that was unheard of in North Korea. So after reflecting on what he was doing and thinking about the lies that he had been told by the officials in North Korea, he decided to give himself up to the authorities in the South.
According to him, he went and surrendered. After that he was paraded around the city of Seoul to show the people that he had surrendered and was very happy to be living in South Korea. Then after much ado, he was put into prison and condemned to death for his spying on the South. While he was in prison he met another death row prisoner named John Park who was actively engaged in helping his fellow prisoners find God. So Matthew was baptized when I met him. I was impressed by his faith and appreciation for the opportunity to share some scripture, receive the Eucharist and pray together on Fridays.
But then one day at the prison I noticed Matthew was not showing up for any personal sessions with me. Upon asking why I was told he was very upset at the Catholic Church for not protesting strongly the imprisonment of a bishop who was incarcerated for political involvement against the government. Since the Church was not protesting he would not receive the Eucharist. But after a few months Matthew was back. I liked his spunkiness and spirit of conviction.
About a year later one day as I entered the prison I was told they were executing and could not meet my prisoners. What sad news that was! My buddies perhaps? As I sat and prayed I was consoled by the fact that my friends were well prepared to meet God and thanked God for that gift of his love and mercy. Then I went off to the cemetery to bury six of them. Matthew was one of them. Was he unjustly condemned? I don't know, but I do know he was in love with God and is now enjoying the gift of eternal life and the freedom he sought in this world.
Columban Fr. Charles O’Rourke lives and works in St. Columbans, Nebraska.