Interview with Columban Fr. Sean Conneely
Fr. Sean, you came to Korea in 1969, almost 50 years ago. How has the nature of your work changed in that time?
At the beginning the primary task was to get a mastery of the Korean language. After that we went to work in parishes; that was our big apostolate at the time. Since the Columbans came to Korea we have founded about 130 parishes. My first long-term parish appointment was to the island of Huk San, five hours by motor launch from the mainland. I worked there with Fr. Sean Russell who was very much involved in community development projects such as boat building.
Being a native Irish speaker, did that influence or help you in your language studies in any way?
I think it was a big help. There are more vowel sounds in the Irish language so the extra sounds helped me in pronouncing some Korean sounds, especially the auw, a fada in Irish. Being used to speaking a second language since my youth gave me an understanding that there are different ways of saying and describing things.
At an early stage you became involved in work with university students.
A few of us younger priests had been asking the question "Are there some areas of work where the Church should be doing something but is not?" One of the groups we identified was university students. A few Columbans were already doing a bit. As I was leaving for a home holiday in 1975, the Director Fr. Peter Tierney asked me to take up work in universities on my return. While at home I did a course in the Richmond Fellowship in London to acquire for some of the skills in relationship that I believed would be necessary in this work.
What exactly did you do while on this university work?
I worked there from 1975 to 1984. Our "parish" was six universities. In the 1970's, Fr. Liam McCarron built an independent center for pastoral work with the youth; this helped a lot. Here we had youth meetings, religious formation and Bible courses, human development courses, etc. This work went very peacefully until about 1982. In 1980 what is known as the Gwangju Uprising took place. University students in this southern city had staged massive protests against the military government. Estimates of the dead vary widely, but hundreds were killed. This radicalized student movements all over the country. The focus now moved to street protests and political activity. It was a difficult time to be supportive and at the same time keep our activities within appropriate boundaries. By now our work had extended to other areas. Fr. Liam had started a night school for young people who had come to the city from rural areas and needed to improve their education. This also demanded a lot of time.
In 1984 there was another change of job.
To be honest, when I returned on holiday to Ireland in 1984, my battery was low because of the amount of political tensions, protests, human rights problems, etc., so I looked forward to a break. The then Columban Director in Korea Fr. Bob Sweeney contacted me to know if, on my return, I would be prepared to work with young Koreans who wanted to join the Columbans. We had just started a new program. This called for different skills so I did a year-long course in Loreto House in Blackrock, Dublin, preparing myself for this different work.
What were the big differences to your previous work?
Knowing how best to prepare young men for the priesthood is always a challenge. A big part of it overlaps with the kind of preparation necessary for any helping profession – promoting their human development, capacity to relate to others, academic work, etc. We were able to send out students to the Seoul Archdiocese seminary for the academic studies. But obviously, for the life of a future priest, growth in personal spirituality and prayer is of vital importance. My predominant memory from that time is the social context. On the streets things were at boiling point with multiple street protests, clashes, evictions, suicide-protests, and more. Some Church leaders like Cardinal Stephen Kim and Bishop Daniel Gi were prophetic voices in those times. This lasted until about 1989.
For several years now you have been involved in helping married couples with their relationships?
Yes. It began several years ago when I was briefly involved with Marriage Encounter in Korea and another program for young couples called Choice. But over the last ten years or so I have been more involved with the Retrouvaille program. The name literally means re-finding or re-discovery. It is a program to help broken and hurting marriages recover.
People might ask, "What have you, a single celibate priest to offer to couples whose marriages are in difficulty?"
In general you could say that life experience helps and certain skills can be learned. For example, those who help people with depression don't necessarily need to have been depressed themselves. I had the experience of a process of "rediscovering" myself. For a time in my life I had lost my way through abuse of alcohol and what could be described as spiritual and emotional burnout. I received the kind of help that I needed and that raised both my sense of gratitude and my awareness of the need for help.
In my late 50s I was asking myself about other needs in society. My Columban superiors supported my desire to work with addicts and also with married couples. I have been working with Marriage Encounter which has the aim of enriching the marriage relationship; most of my work however has been with Retrouvaille. In both of these areas, marriage relationships and addiction, the sharing of personal stories can be helpful. My own story is the experience of the healing power of God in my life.
How does Retrouvaille "work?"
It is an international Catholic movement founded in Canada; non- Catholics occasionally participate. Couples who admit to their difficulties come to a retreat house from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon. All inputs are given by people who have had experienced difficulties themselves; they are carefully prepared and touch on themes such as communication, forgiveness reconciliation, trust in God and each other. There is a lot of time for couples to talk to each other. Theoretically, Asian family bonds are strong because of the Confucian background. In real life the divorce rate was running at about 500 per day ten years ago. Today reports say one out of every three marriages in Korea ends in divorce.
Would you describe the work as fruitful?
Yes. There is a very high rate of healed relationships. Some of the couples who appeared almost lost causes when they came turned out to be top class team leaders. They have learned to transform their suffering into compassion, to move out of victimhood and have become wounded healers. I admire their inner faith and strength and their trust in a God that they experience as a friend and companion in their life's journey.
Columban Fr. Sean Conneelly lives and works in Seoul, South Korea.