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Memories of Cardinal Kim by a Veteran Dong-A Reporter

Posted February. 18, 2009 09:00,   


Editor`s Note: The following is a reflection of a veteran Dong-A reporter on the late Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan.

I met Cardinal Stephan Kim Sou-hwan as a reporter at the funeral mass for Park Jong-chul, a Seoul National University student who was tortured to death for protesting the military dictatorship at Myongdong Cathedral, on Jan. 26, 1987.

Park’s death, which was exclusively covered by the Dong-A Ilbo, triggered mass pro-democracy protests in June that year. Cardinal Kim criticized the government of then President Chun Doo-hwan in his sermon that day.

“I want to ask the regime, ‘Don’t you fear God at all?’ Is there conscience and morality in the government at all? I see only the power of guns and knives. Just as God asked Cain who killed his brother Abel, He is asking ‘Where is Park Jong-chul, who is your son, your student and your people?’” Kim said.

While writing this article, my heart pounded and my voice trembled when I sent the news over the phone. I was afraid that Kim would be taken away by police. The protests intensified, and even white-collar workers joined.

In the end, Chun gave up on June 29.

Contrary to popular belief, Kim’s reputation and charisma were earned after much hardship and suffering. When he became archbishop and head of the Seoul Archdiocese at age 46 in 1968, critics complained over how the son of a Daegu potter with no relatives in Seoul could lead the Seoul Archdiocese. Older mainstream priests even filed petitions against his appointment.

The financial situation of the diocese was also shaky.

Korean Catholic churches were more conservative back then, and refused to accept him for his more liberal ideals.

A year later, he became Korea’s first cardinal but he still suffered. Reflecting on his first decade as head of the Seoul Diocese, Kim said, “The most heartbreaking part was that senior priests didn’t understand the church’s democratization movement and were against it. I used to have a close personal relationship with some of them, and one was like my brother.”

Working with the government, other priests filed petitions criticizing Kim with the Vatican, and people in his hometown of Daegu blamed him for taking an opposing political stance. An intelligence agent followed him around the clock and the government tapped his phone calls. Insomnia that would nag him for 40 years began as well. Even tax investigators hounded a hospital associated with his church.

Despite this, Kim always stood up to injustice numerous times, including the arrest of Bishop Ji Hak-soon in 1974. As a result, the Korean public had more confidence in the Catholic Church.

At the funeral of President Park Chung-hee in 1979, Kim surprised the world when he said in a prayer, “Please Lord, please take pity on Park Chung-hee, who stands before you not as a president but as a mortal.” The Roman Catholic Church in Korea began to turn more liberal.

In the 1980s, Kim hosted the bicentennial anniversary of the Korean Catholic Church, the Canonization of 103 Martyrs while Pope John Paul II visited Korea in 1984, and the 44th International Eucharistic Congregation in Seoul in 1989. He elevated the status of the Roman Catholic Church of Korea both at home and abroad.

He recalled that the most painful moment as head of the Seoul Archdiocese was “May in Gwangju,” referring to the 1980 massacre in the southwestern city.

Kim was also a romantic. He enjoyed historical dramas such as “Emperor Wang Gun” and “Women’s World.” He went to see the films “Sopyonje,” a Korean movie about the one-person narrative lyrical art form “pansori”; “Chun Tae-il: A Beautiful Youth” about a 1970s Korean labor activist; “Schindler’s List”; “Forrest Gump”; and “Beyond Rangoon.”

His favorite songs were “Sarangeuro (Toward Love),” “Aemo (Sense of Affection),” “Sarangeul Wihayeo (For Love),” and “Deungdaejigi (Light Keeper).”

The frugal and humble clergyman held an interview to commemorate the 30th anniversary of his appointment as head of the Seoul Archdiocese in May 1998. “I receive 650,000 won (464 U.S. dollars) per month with a 400-percent bonus, and I spend 200,000 won (143 dollars) to 300,000 won (214 dollars) for offering and a bit for festivities and funerals,” he said.

I begged him to show me his room in January 2002, and found it smaller and more humble than my apartment. There was a simple bed, desk, sofa and bookshelf. I felt sorry to see his worn-out shoes.

The cardinal also heavily promoted integration and open dialogue among religions. He had a friendly relationship with leaders of Buddhism, Protestantism and other religions. Under the Roh Moo-hyun administration, he was criticized for being conservative.

He remained the same, but those who took power blamed him despite his support for them in the past. He continued to give them advice calmly but decisively, however. He used to say, “I sometimes feel sad that I still have to say something like this.”

Certain media attacked him for currying favor with the administration. Declining a face-to-face Dong-A Ilbo interview in June 2003, he called the daily’s editor-in-chief and said, “I have fundamental doubts whether President Roh Moo-hyun ever had the ability to make a breakthrough.”

When Cheong Jin-suk was named Korea’s second cardinal in 2006, nobody was happier than Kim.

Kim has contributed to Korean democracy more than any Korean president. If the United States had Abraham Lincoln as its greatest democratic hero, Korea had Kim. This is my conclusion after watching his words and behavior for two decades.