Posted by: rbbadger | March 6, 2009

North Korean seminarians

Since the Korean War, there has been no Catholic hierarchy in North Korea.  There is a state-sanctioned Catholic parish in Pyeongyang, but no one knows whether or not the priests there have been validly ordained.  Possibly they were ordained in China, but no one is certain. 

The Archbishop of Seoul also holds the title as the Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Pyeongyang, a city which has been without a bishop for a long, long time.  He is the bishop of a diocese he has never seen and is forbidden to set foot in.  Cardinal Nicholas Cheong Jin-suk has selected five North Korean young men to enter the program of priestly formation for eventual ordination and maybe, if things change in a few years, priestly ministry there.

When I was in the seminary in Philadelphia, we had two seminarians from China.  I always held them in a certain regard, knowing that the lives that they were going to experience back in China were going to be most difficult. 

After Mao was victorious in the Chinese Civil War, he decided that all Chinese religions needed to be free of foreign elements, so all missionaries were jailed and eventually deported.  In the 1950s, pressure was put on some bishops to ordain other bishops without the consent of the Pope.  A schismatic church came into being, though it seems now that many of the bishops alined with the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the government-approved organization for Chinese Catholics, have since sought communion with the Pope and have been legitimised.  And indeed, a number of bishops have since been ordained with the approval of both the Holy See and the Chinese authorities.  Still, whether or not one is a member of the state sanctioned body or whether one is underground, you set yourself up for being under the ever-watchful eyes of the Chinese state authorities.  Many bishops, priests, nuns, and lay people in the underground church have been jailed and tortured.  It still continues now in those areas where the Church has been driven underground.  I often find myself wondering about how Fathers John Li and John Chen are doing, hoping and praying that they are safe. 

And yet, even as bad as things are in China, it is a veritable oasis of freedom compared to North Korea.  Many North Koreans have risked their lives to escape to China where they will be more free, but where they live in fear of being apprehended by the Public Security Bureau and sent back to North Korea.  If they are caught by Chinese immigration authorities, they will be deported.  And for the crime of leaving North Korea without permission, they could be executed.

I doubt that the new seminarians, if they make it to priestly ordination, will be welcomed back into North Korea, at least not as long as the Kim family remains in power.  They have come to South Korea, the greatest sin imaginable to the religion of the Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.  One can’t know what might happen, though.  When Communism fell in Europe, it was swift and decisive.  And it does seem that North Korea is once again gearing up for massive food shortages.  They will be greatly hurt by this economic crisis.


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