Friday, February 20, 2009

"Have We Mourned Like This Before?"

A century after his grandfather died in a Korean prison for the crime of being a Catholic, the prelate who led the church into the mainstream on the peninsula -- Seoul's Cardinal Stephen Kim -- was mourned by weeping thousands at a state funeral earlier today in the South's capital.

The first Korean cardinal, Kim -- who led the Seoul church for three decades, watching it grow sixfold in the process -- died Monday at 86. Including the country's current and former presidents, some 400,000 mourners of all faiths were said to have filed past his coffin over its four-day lying in state in the city's Myeongdong Cathedral.

Hailed as a "true guiding light" and the last "reliable leader in Korean society" despite the church's minority status -- around 15% of South Korea's 38 million citizens are Catholic -- the outpouring of reaction at the cardinal's death moved one newspaper to lead its coverage with a headline asking "Have We Mourned Like This Before?"
Religious leaders from Protestantism, Buddhism, Won-Buddhism and Cheondoism took up the first-row at the funeral Mass.

Monk Wontaek from Haein Temple said, ``I hope Cardinal Kim, the spiritual leader of Korea, takes a kind interest in us in Heaven.''

Italian Ambassador Massimo Andrea Leggeri also attended the Mass. ``I came to the Mass because I want to honor his good nature,'' he said.

Gong Ji-young, a celebrated novelist and Catholic, said, ``Cardinal Kim left us new `eyes' in many aspects. All these people waiting to pay their respects to the late Kim shows how much we needed someone to depend on.''

Park Bi-ho, 42, arrived in Myeongdong at 6 a.m. He had visited the cathedral for the five days preceding the funeral as the cardinal lay in state, arriving there early in the morning and returning home between 9 and 10 p.m.

``I saw the cardinal being placed into the cedar coffin, Thursday. It was snowing as if Heaven was blessing Kim's last moments. I was moved that he only had rosary beads in his coffin, simple and frugal, as his life was before. I will live for other people without greed like Cardinal Kim,'' Park said.

Eighty-year-old Jeong Il-hwa also came to see the cardinal's last moments before the public. She said, ``I come today again because I feel sorry for missing the coffin rite, Thursday. He was a great priest. I feel like I am losing a family member.''

Citizens who couldn't make it to the cathedral watched the funeral Mass on television. The viewer rate marked 19.2 percent, according to an aggregated total of the three major broadcasting stations, KBS, MBC and SBS.

Heo Ye-jin, 20, a university student and Catholic, watched the mass on television. ``I visited the cathedral, Wednesday, and cried a lot. I wanted to go and see the mass, but I couldn't. But I watched it all on TV instead. I couldn't forget his words, `You can step on me','' she said.

``You can step on me, before you can take away the students'' is a famous saying of the late cardinal ― words uttered in 1987, when police came to the cathedral to arrest student activists seeking refuge from former President Chun Doo-hwan.

The crowd began to cry when Kim's coffin was moved outside on its way to the Catholic Priests' Cemetery in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province. Female Catholics held their veils in a show of respect to the cardinal.

Sohn Myeong-suk, 50, who watched the cardinal's hearse leaving the cathedral, said, ``I feel as if Kim is already in Heaven and saying the Mass with us,'' as she wiped away tears.

Arriving at the cemetery around 1 p.m., Kim was buried next to Archbishop Paul Marie Ro Ki-nam. His grave is small and simple, 2.5 meters long and 1.5 meters wide. His tombstone will bear his pastoral motto and his favorite phrase from the Bible's Book of Psalms, ``The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.''
The sentiments echoed in another daily's lead editorial:
The mourning transcended age, social status and political ideology.

People gathered at the cathedral from 2 to 3 a.m., and by 6 a.m., when people were allowed in to pay their condolences, a line stretching for 3 km had already formed, while people continued to pour in until midnight when the cathedral closed its doors. Mourners had to wait three to four hours in the freezing cold, but there was no jostling, shouting or cutting in line. Rather, people yielded their spots to let the elderly go first.

We’ve all waited in long lines to buy tickets to our hometowns during holidays or to sign up for new apartment units. But never has there been a time when we formed a line for something that transcends personal gain. Cardinal Kim, who taught us the spirit of sharing through his words and actions, left us something much more valuable.

A wise society uses the deaths of great people to mark the era that preceded that event and to prepare for the next one. The 58 years that transpired from 1951, when Cardinal Kim was ordained as a priest, until his death in 2009, were a microcosm of Korea’s history of trials and accomplishments, ranging from war and devastation, the division of a nation, dictatorship, industrialization and democratization to social polarization. Cardinal Kim embraced all Koreans living in such difficult times, consistently urging us to be patient. He told us that there is an end to pain. And in doing so, he gave us both courage and hope.
Already, reports from the peninsula indicate that the public focus on the church since the cardinal's death hasn't just led to an increase in queries from potential converts, but a spike of interest in the previously-unpopular practice of organ donation which had been Kim's "lifetime wish."

His organs removed to be given to others after his death, the cardinal's eyes were quickly used in two successful cornea transplants.

PHOTOS: AP/Jin Sung-chul(1); Reuters(2)