Korea’s Catholic priests mark 40 years of struggling with the suffering

Posted on : 2014-09-23 16:27 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice was conceived in Korea’s democratization movement, and is still relevant today
 at Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul
at Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul

By Jung Hwan-bong, staff reporter

“It’s been a long time since we had a mass in a cathedral with a roof on it.”

An audience of around 500 at Seoul‘s Myeongdong Cathedral erupted into laughter at the opening remark by Father Simon Chun Jong-hun as he began his sermon. The event was a “gratitude mass” at 10:30 am on Sept. 22 for the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice (CPAJ).

Jeon’s observation was fitting: for much of its forty years, CPAJ has been working on South Korea’s streets. The “fathers of the street” have gone to the most unsavory of places to stand with the people suffering the most and share in their difficult struggles.

CPAJ traces its origins to a time when the movement for democracy in South Korea had reached a point of no return. It was in July 1974, with the Yushin Constitution of then-President Park Chung-hee in full swing, when the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) seized Bishop Daniel Chi Hak-soon, leader of the Wonju Diocese, at the airport on his return from a trip to the Vatican. He had been accused of plotting an overthrow of the government and donating funds to the Democracy Youth and Student League. Ten days after his capture, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison at an emergency court-martial. On Sept. 26 of that year, around 1,200 priests and Catholic congregants gathered in the neighborhood of Myeong-dong in central Seoul for a prayer meeting to demand Chi’s release and the restoration of democracy. That same day, CPAJ officially came into being and released its first declaration.

“Today, the democracy that we fought and died to achieve is once again being trampled,” Jeon said at the sermon. “Livelihoods are collapsing, and the path to reunification [with North Korea] has been cut off. This day of commemoration is a time for committing ourselves once again to the mission of returning to that founding spirit forty years ago and becoming candles in the darkness.”

Jeon also cautioned about the swift fading of the message delivered by Pope Francis during his recent visit.

“He asked us to be an active part of politics and society here, to contribute to solving those problems,” Jeon said. “It is truly sad that we have no movement for reform in the church, only a movement to erase any sign that the pope was here.”

CPAJ has made a mission of serving as a beacon on the streets whenever South Korean democracy has faced crisis. In May 1980, it locked horns with the military dictatorship when it went public with details about the massacre of democracy activists in Gwangju. In May 1987, it helped kindle the flames of the successful June 10 Democratization Movement when it exposed the doctoring of investigation details in the torture death of Seoul National University student Park Jong-cheol. More recently, it went out into the streets in Sept. 2013 for a nationwide prayer meeting to call for a return to democracy and the dismantling of the National Intelligence Service (the later incarnation of the KCIA) after evidence pointed to the agency manipulating public opinion during the 2012 presidential election.

CPAJ has also traveled to the sides of residents of Jeju’s Gangjeong Village who are opposing construction of a naval base; family members of victims in the 2009 Yongsan Tragedy, in which six people lost their lives during a demolition protest; layoff victims at Ssangyong Motor; residents of Miryang, South Gyeongsang Province, who are fighting the construction of electricity transmission towers; and relatives of victims in last April‘s Sewol ferry sinking. Many of those same people were present in Seoul for the 40th anniversary mass.

Bishop Peter Kang U-il, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea (CBCK), also attended to deliver a message of celebration.

“I want to thank all of the priests for helping to support the powerless and working to establish justice in a world of injustice,” he declared.

Jeong Hye-sook, a family member of one of the Sewol victims, said after the mass that she was “grateful to have the priests of CPAJ praying with us and consoling us when we were in the most pain.”

“I’ll never forget that blessing, and now I’d like to see some justice here in South Korea, starting with the investigation into the Sewol sinking,” she continued. “I hope there will be nothing left for CPAJ to suffer for.”

After the mass, the cathedral hosted a symposium where participants shared their opinions and predictions about past and future CPAJ activities.

“They’ve taken the Bible from dead letter to living word, giving it new life as a gospel that gives strength and courage,” said SNU professor of law Han In-sup.

Park Myung-lim, a regional studies professor at Yonsei University, said, “A society where priests speak out less may be a good society, but CPAJ has shown courage time and time again in solving the problems in South Korea at a time when the public sector - the prosecutors, the police, the media, and the government - are not doing their part.”

“CAPJ may be asked to endure more and carry the cross again in the future,” Park continued. “I hope CAPJ will also listen to the voices of others on issue affecting our suffering fellow Koreans in the North.”

Speaking in a telephone interview with the Hankyoreh, Park Rae-goon, the 53-year-old director of Human Rights Foundation ’Saram‘, said the priests of CPAJ “don’t just speak, they act.”

“They are people who have stayed there on the ground in the toughest conditions, taking that punishment and sharing in that suffering,” he added. “It’s good to hear that they plan to continue doing what they’ve been doing.”

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]


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