[Outloook]Korea’s guiding light

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[Outloook]Korea’s guiding light

Yi Hwang, a prominent Joseon Dynasty Confucian scholar, drew a celestial map depicting several constellations. The stars held great importance in figuring out celestial dynamics. They were also signs that could be used to understand the grammar of the universe, as well as human nature.

Whether intellectuals or not, people realized changes in reality and the Earth’s rotation on its axis by watching the North Star. The constellations moved around this fixed, shining light, and people saw these motions as indicating celestial laws and guiding us in our lives.

Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, who has been laid to rest at the Catholic Priests’ Cemetery in Yongin, Gyeonggi, was like our North Star. He was a guiding light in this era in which so many different theories and ideologies struggle for attention, when it is extremely difficult to become a respected elder in the truest sense.

It is even harder to do so in Korea, where it’s difficult to even reach a consensus about whose face will appear on a banknote. Korea’s history in the 20th century was a parade of fallen elders. Most figures failed to become true leaders just before they could have attained such a stature, and those who were worthy of becoming true social mentors were falsely accused of a variety of flaws and blocked from entering the pantheon of elders.

There were certainly people who were good enough to become elders, but many of them gave up their convictions and worked for Japan during the colonial occupation. Others were assassinated and still others chose to go to North Korea.

After gaining independence from Japan, Korea was in a panic in trying to find its way. The constellations that should have been guiding us through our nation’s celestial map had vanished.

It is very fortunate for us that Myeongdong Cathedral survived the Korean War that had completely devastated Seoul. When Western learning and Catholic teachings were introduced to Korea, they did not distinguish the nobility from people of the lower classes, but treated all the people equally, delivering the Holy Spirit to them. Since it was built in 1898, Myeongdong Cathedral was a symbol of healing and resurrection for the people who lived through hardship during the Joseon Dynasty.

Kim was ordained as a priest in 1951, and became the bishop of Seoul in 1968, working from Myeongdong Cathedral. In 1969, he became a cardinal, at a time when many who should have been serving as intellectual and moral leaders gave in to the military regime.

Despotic military rule usually wages war against a society’s leaders, suppressing and imprisoning them in order to maintain control. But the harsher such suppression becomes, the stronger resistance grows. Catholics in Korea did not become radicalized, unlike Catholics in Latin America, because there was a force that buffered the head-on clashes between the regime and the protests. That force was Myeongdong Cathedral and Cardinal Kim. Hearing his message of love, both military dictators and protesters became introspective about human nature. A true elder makes everyone, even those who hold hatred and rage in their hearts, look within themselves.

The late cardinal was a true elder not because of his status or knowledge. It was because he made anyone he met realize the true meaning of love. He penetrated people’s hearts, awakened the love inside them and empowered them to act on that love. He protected the underprivileged and democracy activists. He also shared with others in a world in which people only wanted to possess more and indulge themselves. He wasn’t the only one who did so, but he connected the realm of the holy with the mundane world. This was proved by the nearly 400,000 mourners who lined up for hours to view his body in the cathedral.

In Korea, there are special requirements to become an elder. An elder must be different from ordinary people, but not too different. Cardinal Kim met this requirement and more. The frames of his eyeglasses was broken and his shoes were worn out, proving that he was just like the common people.

But he repeatedly said, “I’m a fool,” despite his high status, proving that he was different from others. When he said, “Thank you,” and “Love one another,” which he often did, he meant what he said. We felt close to him, and we respected him.

Who can take his place? When he passed away, a big star appeared on our celestial map.



*The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Song Ho-keun

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