A cardinal medal for faith’s defender

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A cardinal medal for faith’s defender

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Cardinal Nicholas Cheong Jin-suk, who this week was named a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, wastes no time in cutting through to the important stuff: The first page of his book, “Seeing God through Understanding the Universe,” asks the Big Question: where did man come from?
For some people, the answer doesn’t require 306 pages ― only God knows. But for the cardinal, that was just a start.
In his dense analysis of science and religion, Cardinal Cheong, who at 75 presides over Seoul’s Catholic congregation and was recently named the nation’s second cardinal by the Roman Catholic Church, tosses out references to astronomy, physics and biology to tackle the subject of atheism. His book is persuasive and articulate, perhaps driven by his spiritual confidence and solid academic background in engineering. He gave up on the field, however, to study for the priesthood after seeing a large number of soldiers in his unit drown, having fallen through the ice over a river during the Korean War.
People got a glimpse of his subtle charisma last summer when he stood up to openly criticize the stem cell research undertaken by Hwang Woo-suk, who had just published his results in Science Magazine. Weeks after the publication, Cardinal Cheong sent a letter to media companies calling for Dr. Hwang to halt his research, calling his destruction of embryos “murder.”
It was an unusual move for an elder clergyman known for being media-shy. Unlike his predecessor, Cardinal Kim Sou-hwan, Cardinal Cheong had never made his political positions clear in public, instead labeling his spiritual principles “obedience,” “generosity” and “harmony.”
It was perhaps because of these principles that the archbishop accepted Dr. Hwang’s invitation for a casual meeting a few days after the letter was published. A flock of reporters poured into Cardinal Cheong’s office in downtown Seoul, hoping to catch a brutal exchange. He told Dr. Hwang during the meeting, “Just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should do anything.” But by the end of the day, the two were photographed shaking hands.
It was an image that was hard to swallow for the over 4 million Catholics in Korea who looked to the outspoken bishop to be their moral advocate.
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Yet, some of the more astute photographers at the meeting were able to capture Dr. Hwang posing with his usual diplomatic smile while Cardinal Cheong seemed to be wrestling with a bitter frown and forcing a smile for the cameras.
\In a recent interview with Korean reporters, the cardinal provided a sample of his most direct means of expressing his personal feelings about God.
“Frankly, you can’t say a doctor knows about life,” he said. “He might know about the chemical reactions in a man’s body, but he doesn’t know the mechanism of how or on what basis of mind a person’s illness is cured. So you can’t possibly say a doctor cures a patient. He might have contributed to the cure, but in principle, a doctor only cures a patient’s body. I say this because people, scientists, often mistake a man’s substance for his life. But mind you, life is not a substance. Who can tell for certain whether our life lies in our brain or in our heart? How can a man know what life is? A man could probably learn to read the patterns of life, but he can’t foresee its essence.”
Part of Cardinal Cheong’s antipathy to science may be a result of his failure to become an engineer.
Cardinal Cheong was admitted to the department of chemical engineering at Seoul National University in 1950, the year war broke out. During the fighting, he recalled in an interview with the Monthly Chosun, he saw the man walking directly in front of him vaporized by a landmine.
After the war, he went back to college and finished his degree. His ambitions in science, however, had begun to fade.
He entered a seminary to become a Catholic priest. Three years later, at the age of 30, he was ordained.
“It’s not that I changed my mind,” he later said when asked why he took a different direction. “But my experience of death during the war became a stronger motive for my future than the meaning of my life as a scientist.”
For some years after he was ordained, he taught students at a Catholic high school in Seoul. In 1968, he went to Rome to get a degree in church canon. He became the youngest bishop in Korea in 1970, when he was named the Cardinal of Cheongju at the age of 39. In 1998, he succeeded Cardinal Kim as the Archbishop of Seoul.
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One of the first things he did after becoming Seoul’s archbishop was to establish the Bioethics Committee of Catholics Bishops Conference of Korea, a group of Catholic experts to oversee family issues and bioethics in Korea.
The cardinal’s position on stem cell research was best revealed in an interview with a Catholic paper. He emphasized the ethics of life in church laws, stressing that “everything that a man has invented must be restored for justice [to be done] as originally intended.”
Then during his sermon for the National Day of Life, May 29, 2005, he announced that the Catholic Church of Korea was planning to invest over 10 billion won in a national research project on human stem cells as an alternative to using cloned embryos. The Archdiocese of Seoul also awarded “Myth Life Prizes” to experts who made academic and legal contributions in the field of human stem cells. The moves were transparent attempts to shift the media’s focus away from Dr. Hwang, who had become a national hero with the kind of state support that no other scientists in Korea had ever had access to.
Perhaps the cardinal felt comfortable tackling political issues because he was supported by Korea’s influential Catholic community.
After all, this is a country with 103 martyrs that have been canonized by the Vatican. The Catholic church in Korea had also been a symbolic sanctuary for the democratic movement under the military regimes.
For years, the courtyards of major cathedrals in the nation had been used for civilian protests while their chapels were used as shelters for political outlaws involved in the democratic movement.
In 1969, the year Kim Sou-hwan was first ordained as a cardinal by the Vatican, the number of Korean Catholics was below 800,000. By 2004, that figure grew to 4.5 million, though only two-thirds were actually practicing believers, according to a church survey.
Currently, Korea has 16 dioceses, including military dioceses. Major political figures, including former President Kim Dae-jung and Grand National Party chairwoman Park Geun-hye are practicing Catholics, which gives the church the authority needed to credibly insert its voice into political debates.
But aside from political factors, the Catholic church had maintained a good relations with other religions in the nation, creating a friendly contrast to the more stand-offish protestant denominations. Every Easter, Seoul’s Jogye Temple lifts a large banner with a message from the temple’s head monk saluting the resurrection of Jesus. Korea is probably one of the few nations in the world where an archbishop will stand next to a head monk and light a lotus lantern in front of a statue of the Buddha on the Buddha’s Birthday.

On Wednesday, Pope Benedict XVI named 15 new cardinals, including Cardinal Zoseph Zen Se-kiun of Hong Kong and Cardinal Gaudencio B. Rosales of Manila. Cardinal Cheong became Korea’s second cardinal, a fact he seemed moderately pleased about. He took pains to thank his supporters then spoke a few words of Latin to the flock of assembled journalists.
“Omnibus Omnia,” he said, quoting Saint Paul. The phrase means “All things to all.” It was his way of expressing his devotion to the church.
In a similar case, he recently explained his penchant for writing. Cardinal Cheong, the author of more than 20 books on church canon, answered, “I started writing books only because I felt guilty for keeping what I’ve learned just to myself.”
It was an explanation that aptly illustrated the archbishop’s other perchant: forced modesty. Known as an intellectual, he has to work for his modesty.
One example of this effort is a message left on the official Web site of the Seoul Archdiocese by Kim Yong-ok, a chef at the bishop’s kitchen.
“He comes into the kitchen every morning to tell us how much he enjoyed each meal,” she says. “He wouldn’t just say it was a nice meal. He really means it. Then he always asks us to prepare no more than four side dishes, telling us that most priests have a good appetite anyway.”
During his press conference after the Vatican’s announcement of new cardinals, one Korean journalist asked the cardinal to speak about his public reputation.
He responded, “I think I haven’t worked hard enough to earn the public’s praise.”
He still has plenty of years to change that. His time at the top has just begun.


A quick look at the life of Archbishop Cheong

1931 Born on Dec. 7, 1931
1961 Graduated from the department of theology at the Catholic University of Korea. He was ordained priest and became an assistant priest at the parish church in Jungnim-dong, central Seoul
1961-67 Taught at Songsin High School
1962-64 Court notary of the Seoul Archbishopric
1965-67 Secretary of Archbishop of Seoul
1967-68 Vice principal of Songsin High School
1970 Graduated from the graduate school of Collegio Urbano in Rome, receiving a master’s degree in canon law
1970 Bishop of Cheongju
1975-99 President of the Permanent Council of Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea
1983-present President of the Committee for Canonical Affairs at Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea
1987-93 Secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea
1993-96 Vice president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea
1996-99 President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea
1998-present Archbishop of Seoul and Apostolic Administrator of Pyongyang


Coat of Arms of His Holiness Benedict XVI.

The Pope is the head of the Roman Catholic Church. He has a number of official titles and as many roles: Bishop of Rome; Vicar of Jesus Christ; Successor of St. Peter; Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church; Primate of Italy; Patriarch of the West, and Sovereign of Vatican City. The word Pope originated from Papa, a Latin word meaning “father.”

Coat of Arms of Cardinal Kim Sou-hwan

Cardinals are also called the “crown princes” of the Pope, as are second in position and honor to the Pope. Cardinals assist the Pope and respond to his inquiries. Cardinals have voting rights for new Popes should the current one resign or die. Cardinals oversee major diocese or sometimes serve as minister at the Vatican. They are appointed by the Pope.

Coat of Arms of Archbishop Nicholas Cheong Jin-suk

An archbishop is an elevated bishop, who heads an archdiocese or more than one diocese. Archbishops preside over the jurisdiction of bishops of dioceses. There are two kinds of archbishops: one oversees cities and another works in the Vatican or is in charge of diplomacy. Now that Cardinal Nicholas Cheong Jin-suk has been elevated by the Vatican, Korea will have four archbishops.

Coat of Arms of Bishop Basil Cho Kyu-man

A bishop is a clergyman of high rank in the Roman Catholic, who rules a parish. His major role is to preach the gospel through papal bulls and by teaching doctrines, and to rule on issues of heresy.
Decisions made by the Bishops’ Council become binding laws for Roman Catholics around the world. There are 28 bishops in Korea.


by Park Soo-mee
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