Cardinal Nicholas Cheong Jin-suk has authored and translated 60 books. (Photo: UCA News)
When the news broke on Feb. 21 that Cardinal Nicholas Cheong Jin-suk, former archbishop of Seoul, had been admitted to church-run St. Mary’s Hospital in poor health, many Korean Catholics started praying and wishing for his quick recovery.
Many Catholics took to social media to express their love and concern for the 89-year-old clergyman, who retired in 2012 yet continues to inspire them with words and actions.
Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung, the current archbishop of Seoul, reportedly requested priests, religious and faithful to offer prayers and a special Mass for him. Meanwhile, the prelate also met with Cardinal Cheong at the hospital and administered the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.
Thanks to the love, prayers and wishes combined with treatment, the cardinal has recovered steadily. By the first week of March, the hospital removed most of the life-saving equipment from the cardinal, whose condition had significantly improved, Yonhap news agency reported.
The cardinal remains in hospital for observation but has started responding to love, concerns and questions of the faithful from his bed.
He marked the 60th anniversary of his priestly ordination on March 18. His relatives visited him on the day and told people the cardinal was grateful to God and people for the enormous love he has received during his life and recent ailments.
“I thank God that I can express my gratitude to people. As a priest, I have received a lot of love that was so undeserved,” Catholic Times magazine reported him as saying.
For decades, Cardinal Cheong has been a towering figure and a humble servant-leader of the Korean Catholic Church.
He was born on Dec. 7, 1931, in Supyo Dong in Seoul. He briefly studied chemical engineering before joining a seminary for priestly formation. He was ordained a priest on March 18, 1961.
He obtained a degree in canon law from Pontifical Urban University in Rome. Father Cheong was appointed bishop of Cheongju Diocese on June 25, 1970. At the age of 39, he became the youngest bishop in Korea and led the diocese from 1970-98. He became the archbishop of Seoul in 1998, a post he held until his retirement in 2012. He also played the role of apostolic administrator of Pyongyang, entrusted to oversee Catholics in North Korea.
Pope Benedict XVI made him a cardinal in 2006.
From 1975 to 1999, he was a member of the executive committee of the Korean Bishops’ Conference and from 1983 to 2006 he was president of its committee for canonical affairs.
From 1996 until 1999, he was president of the Korean Catholic Bishops’ Conference (CBCK). He attended the Special Assembly for Asia of the Synod of Bishops in 1998. From 2007 to 2012, he was a member of the Council of Cardinals for the Study of Organizational and Economic Affairs of the Holy See. From 2006 to 2012, he was a member of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.
Since becoming a priest, Cardinal Cheong has prioritized evangelization and increasing the number of Catholic faithful in the country with an aim to reach 20 percent by 2020, according to Vatican Press.
Pew Research Center estimates that 46 percent of 51.8 million South Koreans are non-religious, 29 percent are Christians and 23 percent Buddhists. Catholics account for 11 percent or about 5.6 million.
A passionate and enthusiastic reader and writer since his childhood, Cardinal Cheong calls himself “a bookworm.” He has authored and translated some 60 books mostly related to canon law and catechism, Catholic Times reported.
The more we share, the greater is love
His books include The History of Canon Law, Explanations on Canon Law and Explanations on the Korean Catholic Pastoral Guidebook. He is a co-translator and co-author of Fr. Andrew Kim Tae-gon’s Letters ― a book based on the letters of Korea’s most popular Catholic martyred saint published last year to mark his 200th birth anniversary.
Following his appointment as a cardinal in 2006, the prelate said in an interview that a commitment to “share for love” inspires him to write relentlessly. "The more we share, the greater is love," he said.
Jungang High School in Seoul, his alma mater, dedicated a Cardinal Cheong Jin-suk Bookstore in its library last July to pay tribute to him and to encourage students to read books.
During his time in Cheongju Diocese and Seoul Archdiocese, Cardinal Cheong worked tirelessly to infuse strong spiritual and pastoral vigor and enthusiasm at diocesan and parish levels. He also undertook programs and activities in collaboration with church organizations to ensure self-reliance of parish churches.
In Seoul, he is credited with establishing 75 new parishes and leading pastoral changes and renovations such as parish-centered pastoral ministry, reviving small community movements, encouraging children and youth movements and implementation of a parish council system for each parish.
To help local Catholics have better spiritual and pastoral care, he pioneered the creation of Uijeongbu Diocese from Seoul Archdiocese in 2004.
He renamed the parish Education Bureau as the Youth Bureau in 2005 to prioritize youth formation in parishes. He promoted cultural projects such as “Jesus Loves You” that combine culture and spirituality to strengthen the Church’s pastoral care for young people.
Cardinal Cheong attended the first Korea Youth Day held on Jeju Island in 2007 and asked young people not to be afraid amid challenges and difficulties in their lives. He encouraged youth by declaring that he feels youthful in the presence of young people. "Because I am with you, I feel young too!" he reportedly said.
He also made effective efforts to raise local priestly and religious vocations that saw numbers of priests and religious increase.
Human beings should not mistake themselves for owners of the world
Throughout his life Cardinal Cheong has been a strong pro-life advocate and said that his heart hurts when he thinks about abortion. He made the life issue a central theme of pastoral affairs as bishop of Cheongju.
In 2005, Seoul Archdiocese under his leadership launched its committee for life after Hwang Woo-suk, a South Korean scientist, triggered a national and global storm with claims of having cloned human embryos that he allegedly extracted from stem cells.
Cardinal Cheong dedicated a Mass for Life in December that year that sought to spread the culture of respect for life, urging human beings that they should not mistake themselves for owners of the world.
The following year, Cardinal Cheong led a Eucharistic Congress in parishes with the theme “Christ in our Lives” that further emphasized the life movement.
Another major pastoral priority of his life has been efforts for unification, reconciliation and peace on the Korean Peninsula. From 1998 to 2004, was the head of the Korean bishops’ Commission for the Reconciliation of Korean People.
That led to the creation of the National Reconciliation Center in Paju, near the border with North Korea, in 2014. It has a building with a museum, a church and a shrine with an aim to foster better relations with North Korea and promote peace, reconciliation and evangelization.
In 2009, he described the assassination of Hirobumi Ito, the first Japanese colonial governor of Korea, 100 years ago by Catholic independence activist Ahn Jung-geun “as an act for peace in East Asia.”