Seoul (AsiaNews) - After almost 50 years of missionary work in Korea - and 30 trips to the North - Fr Gerard Hammond now says that he has received from his institute a letter that reads in part: "It is the sincere desire of the general council that you should continue your efforts in these activities . . . that the institute maintains are in keeping with the early history of the Maryknoll fathers in that nation". It is the most recent act of a drama whose roots extend more than 60 years ago.
It was the afternoon of August 15, 1945, and in Tokyo the staff of the newspaper Asahi were in a state of grave uncertainty. A few hours earlier, the emperor, in a message to the nation, had declared the end of the war and had exhorted all to "bear the unbearable". The "unbearable" was unconditional surrender. The battleship Missouri was heading toward the bay of Tokyo. The population had to be prepared, to keep them from being overcome by panic. Above all, the fate of the women was a source of concern.
It was urgent to find a personality who would be able to influence the parties in such a way that the occupation would take place in an orderly manner. A journalist, Miyamoto, thought of the Catholic Church. He was not a Christian, but he had heard his daughter, who was a Catholic, talk about the Church of Rome. His colleagues approved the proposal, and Miyamoto, together with the director, went to the cathedral to get suggestions. The pastor spoke to an American priest, Fr Patrick Byrne, of the Maryknoll missionary institute, who was in Kyoto. Because of his goodness and his love for the Japanese, he had not been interned. The archbishop of Tokyo, Peter Doi, who later became a cardinal, added his recommendation.
The following day, the journalist met with the American missionary and asked him: "Father, save the Japanese women and exhort the American soldiers to behave with dignity". Father Byrne immediately departed for the capital, from which he transmitted the message to the arriving American troops. We possess the text of this, which we admire for its moral force. The reporters for The New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor used interviews with him to present the true face of Japan to America. The occupation took place without any victims.
But it wasn't this way for Father Patrick. In the same year of the Japanese surrender, Byrne was transferred to Tokyo to reorganise the missionary work of his institute. But two years later, the Holy See appointed him as apostolic visitor for Korea. He was transferred to Seoul in 1949, when it was clear that the nation of South Korea was being formed, and Byrne was elevated to apostolic delegate, in effect nuncio, and he was ordained bishop. On June 25, 1950, the communist army of Kim Il Sung launched an attack on the south and occupied the capital. The bishop of Seoul was in Rome for his ad limina visit, and Byrne, to avoid leaving the church without a pastor, established himself in the bishop's residence, where he was arrested.
The province of Pyongyang, which he crossed during the "death march", had been the first missionary area of the Maryknolls in Korea. Byrne had founded and directed the mission from 1923 to 1929. During the march, although he was an elderly man (aged 73) and in bad health, he encouraged everyone and shared the little food that he received with those he thought were weaker than he. One of his lungs collapsed. The day before he died, a few kilometres from the Yalu river, in the extreme north of the Korean peninsula, he told his suffering companions: "The greatest privilege of my life, after the gift of the priesthood, is that of having suffered for Christ and with all of you".
The life of Bishop Byrne was a constant point of reference for Fr Gerard Hammond, who during those years was an aspiring missionary in the Maryknoll seminary in New York. He became a priest in 1960, and was sent to South Korea. The mined border of the 38th parallel and the hostility between the leaders of the "two nations" blocked any access to the North.
For 30 years, he worked as a pastor and vicar general in the diocese of Chunchon. When he was established there, there were six elderly fellow missionaries who had been expelled from Korea 20 years earlier. They told Gerard: "Our heart is north of the 38th parallel. You who are young must keep alive the hope of returning there. Our roots are there".
Fr Hammond not only kept the hope alive, but he assiduously sought out all possible ways of realising it. Having been for 18 years the superior of the Maryknoll missionaries in Korea, he felt that he was the bearer of the spiritual testament of Bishop Byrne.
The dream began to be realised in the 1990's. The Maryknoll house in Seoul was hosting a man from Catholic Relief Service International, the aid coordinator for North Korea. This man introduced Fr Hammond to Stephen Linton, the president of the Eugene Bell Foundation, which he established in 1995 to bring aid to North Korea. In this there is a "delegation" that twice a year is allowed to visit some of the areas of North Korea. The purpose of the visits is to deliver medicine and medical equipment to fight tuberculosis.
The delegation is officially recognised as an NGO by the Pyongyang government. There are only five or six permanent members, including two Catholic priests: Fr Hammond, and a priest of the Missions Etrangères de Paris. They are all practicing Christians, and Hammond is considered the chaplain of the group. The visits last from ten days to two weeks. In Pyongyang, they stay in the Guest House, being guests of the government, but most of their time is spent outside the capital. They intentionally avoid religious and political topics, but the identity of the two priests is not hidden. The members of the group pray together three times a day, and hold weekly religious services, which everyone sees and respects.
The Maryknoll missionary has already participated 30 times in these "volunteer trips", and is preparing to leave for his 31st. Father Gerard is 75 years old! "When I go to the North", he says, "it is as if I were taking a pilgrimage. For me, that is a holy land: the sacrifice of Bishop Byrne, the missionary work of my predecessors, and the present suffering of the people make it such".