Seoul (AsiaNews) - With over 690 missionaries worldwide, 313 in Asia alone, the Korean Church is now a point of reference for many of the small and young Catholic communities of the continent. Marking the Day for Korean missionaries abroad, on 1 October in Seoul, AsiaNews interviewed Fr Paul Cho Hae In, a priest of the Diocese of Uijeongbu, for three years a missionary in Cambodia.
Ordained in 1994, Fr. Cho asked in 2001 to go on a mission. His request was accepted by the Congregation of Maryknoll missionaries and in 2002 he left for Cambodia. Until 2005 he worked together with lay priests and nuns in the village of Kan An Long An, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Returning to his homeland, Fr. Cho now manages the Diocese of Uijeongbu consultation center for foreign workers in Korea.
As a diocesan priest, how do you see your experience as a foreign missionary?
After 6 years as a diocesan priest, I felt the need to renew my priestly life, so the desire to experience an overseas missionary was born in me.
My three years in Cambodia were very helpful for my life. I understand that a priest can grow in his vocation, accepting the challenge of the mission in an environment different from his.
Is there a particular reason that drove you to choose Cambodia as a missionary territory?
I asked to go to an Asian country, also because being Asian I thought I'd give a better contribution to the culture and people with feelings similar to mine.
With the help of Fr. Gerard Hammond of the Congregation of Maryknoll missionaries, I arrived in Phnom Penh in 2002. Here I spent the first six months studying the Khmer language in a private school in the capital and I began to become involved in missionary activities.
What were your missionary activities during your stay?
I lent a hand in the management of educational programs for school children in the village of An Long Kang An. The area was very poor and had a high rate of illiteracy. We taught children the Cambodian alphabet, so as to enable them to continue their studies. Not knowing the language well I was in administration and ran the school library and organized play activities for the children.
What struck you most about the Cambodian people?
The children's eyes, which are truly pure, I will never forget them. The Cambodian people are still marked by the Pol Pot regime, in which over 2 million people died in death camps, considered enemies of the people. People are very suspicious and often tell lies to each other. Lying is a tendency that people acquired to survive the Khmer Rouge regime and, unfortunately, the wound is still open. I once visited a family where the father had been persecuted by the men of Pol Pot. Years later, he still mutters senselessly, numbed by the trauma.
What difficulties did you experience as a missionary?
Upon arriving in Cambodia, I wanted to become one with the Cambodians. But over time I realized that I would never be like them, because I was born and raised in a different environment. I understand however that I must recognize this diversity and accept it with serenity. The same happened to me with the idea of total poverty. Although they desire to be one with the poor, it is often difficult for missionaries to live a radical poverty in a concrete way, because they live in a structure that can not be deprived of everything.
What advice would you give to diocesan priests involved in missions?
Although my experience of three years is very little, I tell them that it's worth it. Being in Cambodia, I was able to see my priestly vocation with new eyes, thanks to the challenges and tensions that I experienced. The Korean Catholic Church is stable and prosperous, in a way that offers few opportunities for this type of experience to the diocesan priests. If we want to be more vigilant in our vocation, we should try to jump into these challenges, even going abroad as missionaries. Living as a priest means not only living the sacraments, but also trying to draw closer to the model of Jesus, who has lived for the people and with the people, especially the poor. A missionary is a bridge between two peoples, the people of the missionary territory and his own Church which is enriched by his mission.