The Passionists in Korea: Historical Musings
by Brother Laurence M. Finn, C.P.
Brother Larry Finn, C.P. has a world vision. Born in 1948 in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, Canada, he professed his first Passionist vows as member of Holy Cross Province (Chicago, Illinois) in 1968. He professed his final vows in 1971. I first met him in the late 1980s while I was doing doctoral research in Rome, Italy. He showed me around the city and countryside. In recent years I have been impressed by his care and compassion for the Catholic Church in China. He has taught me that wisdom in international relations means knowing the correct questions to ask at the correct time. Through his initiative I was able to go to Korea in 2002 to be the keynote speaker at the Korea Provincial Chapter. As this essay shows, Larry Finn, C.P. has a keen love for Korea. I asked him to share his spirit of the overseas missions so as to celebrate this centennial year of jubilee in Holy Cross Province. He resides at the Passionist Community. 413-161 Tonam-dong, Sonbuk-gu Seoul 136-060 Korea. His email is [email protected] -editor
Early Thoughts About Korea:
The first time I ever consciously heard of Korea was in 1964. It had been announced that the Province of the Holy Cross, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois was to send a small group of men to Korea at the request of one of the Bishops of that country.
At that time I was just 16 years of age, having entered the Passionist Preparatory Seminary the year before. After this announcement, I met the future superior of the undertaking, Father Raymond McDonough, C.P. in Warrenton, Missouri, where the Passionist Preparatory School was located. He had just traveled by train from Los Angeles, California with a group of seminarians, acting as their chaplain during the two or three day journey. I remember meeting him in the sacristy after the morning Mass. I mention this, because this was a rather pivotal meeting for me, though I was totally unaware of it at the moment. As the years passed, Father Raymond would frequently write letters to the Province-which were faithfully posted on the bulletin board in the school. I always read them with great attention, admiring his ability to put so well his first impressions in a land so very far away from the Missouri fields I found myself in.
As the years passed, I found myself continuing with my formation as a Passionist religious in Detroit, Michigan and then for a period of seven or eight years in Louisville, Kentucky as a religious in vows. These letters from Korea kept being put on the bulletin board-and I continued to ignore their implications for myself personally, but still admired Father Raymond’s ability to communicate so well through the written word.
At the suggestion of my director, Father Michael Brophy, C.P. during the months of September and October 1972, I was asked to seriously think about the future-and the possibilities that Divine Providence may have in store for me. This was a time of discernment-a time to put together all of the threads that were slowly becoming the tapestry of my life. I spent extra time in prayer and meditation in the Chapel. Never has prayer been more arid for me; never have I had such difficulties trying to connect with the Lord living within my heart. At the end of the period assigned for discernment, on Tuesday, October 31, 1972 in a moment of great frustration with myself and this whole process, I remembered the letters that Father Raymond had been writing to our Province for the past eight years. These letters were always informative, always well written, and always filled with great faith and hope for the future. With this memory, I found myself at great peace and knew that my life would be lived in a far distant place.
Obviously, a moment of inspiration could easily be illusory as well as it can be a Divine prompting. Submitting my experience in writing to the Provincial Paul M. Boyle, C.P. in Chicago, and requesting to be allowed to go to Korea as a Passionist was just the first step to further discernment, or testing of the Spirit. By Christmas of 1972, the fledgling vicariate in Korea and the Passionist Provincial Council in Chicago approved my request to become a missionary in Korea. After completing all of the requirements for this next step, another two and half years were to pass before I actually was to step on Korean soil, but the decision had been made, and I began to steer the course of my life in that direction.
The final two years before departing America for Korea were filled with courses in theology, philosophy, history and cultural studies. I took fascinating courses in Buddhism and comparative religion that stretched my mind and forced me to take very seriously the implications of this new life unfolding before me. To be honest, it was great fun. Things I had only briefly considered before were becoming the staples of my life. Most of these courses were taken at the two local Catholic Universities in Louisville-the others at the University of Kentucky campus in Lexington.
Finally, after a three-week journey across the wide Pacific by container ship, I arrived in the port city of Pusan, Korea on August 1, 1975. The first launch out to our ship was a small wooden boat, and at the helm stood Raymond McDonough, pipe in hand, and waving to the latest addition to his charges in this then mysterious land. My life in Korea had begun.
Reflections After Thirty Years:
Looking back over thirty years, I am struck by several things. First and foremost is a conviction that among the many decisions made in my life, the request to go to Korea and its ultimate acceptance by the powers-that-be was probably the biggest example of God’s mercy that I have ever experienced. I cannot imagine another life in which I could have been happier or more content.
Secondly, being a part of the formation of this Korean Province, despite the tears and at times, desperate problems that have besieged us has made me realize that somehow in God’s great mysterious love, something has been created that gives Him great glory and returns His love for our human family in a very concrete way. Despite the problems, whether my own human weaknesses or the failures of my brothers, we all have played a role in developing Passionist life in an enduring and significant way. From being a distant outpost in East Asia, we have become a full member in the community of Provinces that make up the global Congregation of the Passion.
Thirdly, the great dialogue of culture that takes place between a missionary and the place where he or she works has been one of the most difficult but most rewarding aspects of life in this corner of the world. The day when I could say honestly “I will never become a Korean” was the day that I was able to accept the reality of my “foreignness” and not let that get in the way of meaningful interchange with this ancient land’s people and history. The day when I recognized that I would never be totally fluent in this language was the day that I knew that language was actually just another form of human communication-and using proper grammar does not mean that you communicate on a deeply human level. Language, rather than being a barrier, is a bridge that only serves to communicate to fellow human beings-it is not an end in itself. This bridge of language is very important, mind you, but it is not the object of life itself.
Part of the experience in a country like Korea is coming to terms with the insertion of what was originally a group of western men into a context that was not only totally foreign to them-but also had existed for thousands of years with few common denominators shared with their native culture. From the first days I was in Korea, this overwhelming fact of being “other” was perhaps the most stressful experience that I had. It was stressful, but at the same time fascinating to come to a simple understanding of a people and geography that has matured over the years to a perhaps deeper understanding of the values that make up a Korean culture.
Living and working in this context, I found myself going through a number of phases, or stages, as the years passed. The first phase could only be described as total and complete confusion. I was twenty-seven years old, but I only had the ability to communicate on the level of a new born baby. Becoming so dependent on others for their interpretation of my thoughts and feelings was not only challenging, it was also infuriating. How I longed for the day when I could communicate easily with the Koreans with whom I was living. One of the great graces for me was meeting two women who were patient enough to listen to me, and also share their lives and thoughts with me. They took the time to communicate simply, and to correct my first faltering steps gently. One was an older woman who was our cook-a woman who had walked from Pyeong-Yang to Pusan (about 800 kilometers) during the Korean War with her six children. As the months went by, and I could understand a bit of what she was saying, I was so deeply impressed with what she had done in her life. The second was a young lady, just recently graduated from University, who was working as the secretary to our Regional Vicar, Father Raymond. Their patience with me was deeply appreciated.
The next stage was dealing with my first attempts at actually working in Korea. After two years of language school, I could speak Korean fairly well, but I could understand very little. Different accents and dialects were not considered in our language training. Yet these were the very things I found most fascinating. A tiny country like Korea has such a variety of dialects, that it was always a pleasure to attempt understanding them. For some reason, the more abrasive the dialect to standard Korean-speakers, the more I liked it! I was also made the director of our new retreat centre in Seoul-which offered so many challenges that there were days I felt totally overwhelmed. But as those months and years went by, suddenly I discovered that I was looking forward to the next day-and doing something new and different with the many men and women who were our employees. I found myself feeling not only more confident, but also much more content with the assignment to Korea.
The final stage is the one that began many years ago when I was made a local superior of a community after just six or seven years in the country. Since then, with the exception of an assignment in Rome for a number of years, I have had the honor of serving as a local superior almost continuously. This has been the best period, because it has allowed me to deal with Korean Passionists on a much deeper level than I thought possible. Through these over twenty years, I no longer feel it as “us foreigners” and “them”-but rather in my heart of hearts-as “us together,” brothers who serve the same Lord of life and victory. We are the Passionist Community of Korea, and we are the sons of Paul of the Cross, seeking to keep alive in the hearts of the faithful and in our own hearts, the memory of the Passion of Jesus. We serve the Church, some of us more humbly than the others, but always as brothers who share a deep and abiding love of the person of Jesus. For that I am thankful everyday of my life.