Columbans Celebrate 80 Years in Korea

25th October 2013 - by Stephen Awre

On Tuesday 29th October, the Catholic Church in Korea will celebrate 80 years since the Columbans first arrived in the country with a Mass of Thanksgiving in Myeongdong Cathedral.  The Archbishop of Seoul, Andrew Yeom Soujang, will be the main celebrant.

In the intervening years, both the country and the Catholic Church have undergone a rapid transformation and Columbans are widely credited for the solidarity they have given to the people during times of war and immense hardship.  Regional Director of Korea, Fr. Donal O’Keeffe, when looking over the history of the Region, has been struck by some constant characteristics of this contribution.

(1) Enduring efforts to reach out to people on the margins and accompany them. The official account of Church history states that in 1933 the Columbans were assigned responsibility for “the areas of Jeollanamdo and Jeju which had remote areas and many islands” and from this beginning we have continued to build friendships and communities allied with local people committed to their faith.

(2) Responding to the signs of the times. In the post Korean War period many personnel were assigned to the region and they endeavoured to help people recover from the disaster of war. We followed people into cities, building communities in the poor urban areas; we responded to the people marginalized by the industrialization process; took a stand on human rights. In recent years, as the Korean Church began to send out missionaries, we have undertaken new initiatives to promote that outreach.

(3) There is a definite pattern in the way Columbans have worked. Practically all the accomplishments of the Society to date have originated through the initiative and immense efforts of individuals. This was true in the past, whether it was the breaking-off and opening of new parishes, setting up Gamblers’ Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, Catholic night schools, supporting workers and defending their rights, or beginning the formation programme. In all cases, one man took on the task and the Society, with the generous support of our benefactors in Britain, Ireland, USA, Australia, New Zealand and from within Korea itself, gave its commitment and resources to the cause.

In another development related to our history, all seven of the Columbans who lost their lives in the Korean War are now listed among the ’81 recent-modern day witnesses to the faith’ being put forward for beatification.

On July 7th, 2013 the Seoul Archdiocesan Weekly Newspaper Pyonghwa Shinmun reported that having reviewed the initial documentation the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints has given the go-ahead to begin processing the beatification next year. The Columbans are James Maginn, Patrick Reilly, Anthony Collier, Francis Canavan, Patrick Brennan, Tom Cusack and John O Brien.

Perhaps one of the greatest indicators of how much the Columban presence in Korea has been recognised and appreciated is the number of prizes and awards given to Columbans by the Government, either pothumously for those who lost their lives in World War II, or more recently when Fr. Bob Brennan of New Zealand was awarded the Grand Prize and honorary citizenship of Seoul, and you can read all about this in the May issue of the Far East magazine.