A ‘street missionary’ on the outskirts of Seoul
by Pino Cazzaniga
Fr Vincenzo Bordo has built a home for the homeless and the downtrodden and one for the lost kids of the street. In either they can get a hot meal as well as assistance. A new type of mission is in the making in a modern Asian setting.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – Fr Vincenzo Bordo, 51, from the Congregation of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) has a flat in Seongnam, a commuter community of a million people, close to Seoul. For five days a week he wears a cook’s apron, peels potatoes and onions, steaming rice to prepare hot meals for people living on the streets. Except for his prayers, he spends the rest of his time in the local streets or markets. Local merchants have come to know him well and are not reluctant to give him discounts.  He is shimbunim, ‘Reverend Holy Father’, an honorary title that Koreans, believers or non-believers alike, use when they refer to a Catholic priest. He is a “street missionary”, not so much because he hangs out in the streets most of the time, but rather because his dinner guests—hoboes, drunkards, ex-cons, the poor and elderly, the mental cases, the disabled—have no permanent place of their own; they are in other words, street people.

“We built Anna’s House for them,” he told me. “Here they get a meal but also medical and psychological care, legal counselling and work, a haircut, clothing, showers and more.” Anna’s House now offers 400 hot meals every evening “with an overall attendance of 104,000 in 2007.”

None of this could have happened without outside financial help and people; generally volunteers rather than organisations. In fact nowadays Father Vincenzo can rely on 350 permanent volunteers, a motley crew of non-practicing Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, non-believers, who offer time, expertise as well as money.

Over time two other centres, ‘Bartholomew House’ and “Eugene House’, saw the light of day; their target: street kids. Other street people made Father Vincenzo aware of their predicament. Both places were named in honour of the parents of the late parents of those who donated the money for the homeless canteen and the young workers shelter.

But this is not all that Father Bordo does. His action possesses a missiological dimension as well, and he has played a role in reshaping the image of the Western missionary in the modern Asian context.

When they arrived in 1990 OMI missionaries’ first contact with the Korean Church was traumatic. “We had been invited to found a mission in Korea,” wrote Father Bordo, “but instead we felt ‘rejected’ by the local Church as surplus (clergy), shunned by civil society which did not need our help. We realised that the traditional view of the mission as plantatio ecclesiae (Church founding) ‘helping in the development of poor countries’ was inadequate to understand the reality in which we found ourselves.”

Yet the missionaries did not lose faith. Opening a mission in Korea was the brainchild of their Superior General, Mgr Marcello Zago, a former missionary to Thailand, and an important figure in the field of inter-faith dialogue, later to become the second most important figure in the Pontifical Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples. Zago’s decision also reflected John Paul II’s invitation to missionary institutes to prepare for the evangelisation of China. Given Korea’s historical and cultural ties to its giant neighbour, it seemed a good idea to prepare the missionary personnel with that goal in mind.

Ultimately the OMI missionaries overcame their predicament by theologically reflecting upon it, especially by looking at the Council’s ecclesiology. “We came to be even more certain that the Church is not only a hierarchical and sacramental hierarchy, but also evangelisation and the communion of charisms,” Vincenzo said.

“Evangelising the poor” is the charism Saint-Eugene de Mazenod, founder of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, saw as the basis of the spirituality and activity of his congregation. Combining this charism to the reality of the new poor, Seongnam’s outcast and the foreign workers in Suwon, Vincenzo and his fellow clergymen have come up with a new type of missionary “in foreign lands”.

The stream of volunteers who come to help the mission’s founder and main advocate as well as the many religious and civil recognitions given to him—honorary citizen, Seongnam’s Volunteer Award, a Buddhist foundation prize, programmes on Protestant and Catholic TV as well as interviews by national papers and on TV news programmes—show how this “small Christian community” is a beacon of light for Seongnam’s street people.

Even though he has little use for prizes and recognitions, Father Vincenzo is comforted by the fact that they are a sign of how his action has become like a sacrament, a sign for modern secularised man.

“Alongside the mission in the Third World, in places like Africa for example, another kind of mission is slowly emerging: it does not dwell in the earth’s forests but lives instead in jungles made of concrete, with an onrush of humanity streaming through modern cities rather than fording the tumultuous rivers of old.”

Seongnam’s streets, home to the new poor, to homeless people and abandoned kids, are where Father Vincenzo’s mission now lives, which has become what he likes to call the “mission to the Fourth World.”