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Seeking a truly humble shepherd

Like all Catholics, Koreans want gentle, kindly priests

Seeking a truly humble shepherd
Stephen Hong, Seoul

January 10, 2013

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Last December, a Catholic weekly newspaper reported on a parish priest who serves his parishioners with humility, which attracted enthusiastic reactions from local Catholics.

The reporter said since the story was published, every day he received several calls from Catholics who said they wanted to meet the priest, and added that he felt “local Catholics were really longing for such priests who have affection for them.”

However, the reporter could not help them because the priest did not want to disclose his name or parish.

It made me think over a recent complaint from a member of my parish who has been attending Masses at a neighboring church recently.

He was unhappy because the parish priest sees his parishioners as objects to be disciplined, giving a good scolding during his homily, interfering in parishioners’ activities and making arbitrary decisions without listening to them.

In fact, I can see the number of parishioners who attend Sunday Mass in my parish has declined visibly.

The humble priest in the story wears his sandals without socks even in the bitter cold of winter, when the temperature often falls below zero. He had previously been in China for pastoral work for about a decade.

Two years ago, he returned to South Korea. The priest was often moved to tears during Mass. In China, he was not allowed to say Mass with people but had to conduct it while facing the wall.

In South Korea, he regularly visits parishioners and washes their feet whenever he visits their homes.

“When parishioners feel they are respected, they can be encouraged merely by a priest’s smile,” he says.

He is perfectly right. And though his method of serving people is not entirely unique , what is it about him that has drawn such a devoted response?

I got some hint of this after speaking to the reporter who did the original story.

“Local Catholics are really longing for priests who have affection for them,” the reporter said.

I think there are many parishioners who are feeling neglected by their priests, or put off by overly authoritarian attitudes.

Several Church surveys have shown that participation in the sacraments – the core of the life of faith – has weakened because of such attitudes and that a major reason for people leaving the Church is as a result of “disappointment over bossy and high-handed attitudes of priests and Religious.”

According to one survey conducted by Suwon diocese in 2007, the second most common answer to why people were leaving the Church was their priests’ authoritarian attitude following “the burden from [mandatory] confession.”

Church figures also show that the number of Catholics who regularly attend Mass has continuously decreased in the past decade.

From these we can presume parishioners want their priest to be a pastor who takes care of them with humility, not with authority.

The word “humility” signifies lowliness or submissiveness. It comes from the Latin word humilitas, whose root is humus meaning the earth beneath us, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.

The earth embraces everything, even dirt and filth. But it is ironic that the more the earth accepts those wastes the more fertile the soil becomes.

Laozi (Lao-tzu), the ancient Chinese Taoist philosopher, said in his Dao De Jing (or Book of Virtue) that “the highest form of goodness is like water.... It stays in low places which all men dislike. Therefore, it comes near the Dao (way, or truth).”

That reminds me of late Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, who had a reputation for being a cleric who practiced love among poor people.

He said: “It took 70 years for that love to come down to my heart from my head,” as “I had got preferential treatment like a nobleman just because of my priesthood.”

This attitude is why so many Koreans regard Cardinal Kim as the country’s most respected social figure even after his death.

Humility begins from self-reflection – the ability to see yourself reflected in the mirror of your conscience.

I guess the humility that parishioners want to see from priests is not something great.

Suwon diocese’s survey showed that 91.9 percent of respondents said, “the priest who understands and cares for parishioners' situation is the most desirable.”

They just want a priest who says hello or smiles at them, meets them with ease and willingly listens to their difficulties.

Likewise, the readers who wanted to meet the above mentioned priest might have longed for a priest who is gentle like the earth and mild like water.

“Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart,” said Jesus, inviting us to learn this very attitude.

Stephen Hong is a journalist based in Seoul

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