– A South Korean seminarian’s journey to be a priest and a part of the American Church –
Saying “yes” changed a seminarian’s life. I was a graduate seminarian in the Archdiocese of Daegu, South Korea, when my rector asked me if I wanted to go to Cleveland to study theology. When I said “yes,” I was thinking of a Korean saying: A monk leaves the temple just as it becomes comfortable. I wanted challenge as much as change.
H.Paul Kim is my name in America because my baptismal name is after the Korean saint, Hasang Paul Chong. Beheaded in 1839, St. Hasang Paul was canonized in 1984, along with 102 other martyrs, during the Korean Catholic Church’s bicentennial celebration. In America, my name, language, and appearance—everything about me—was new to many, even to me. I had to learn different ways of eating, communicating, and thinking at St. Mary Seminary in Cleveland. For instance, pronouncing the word “Lord” was challenging because Korean does not differentiate an “R” sound from an “L” sound. So, for a seminarian who had a hard time pronouncing “Lord” in daily prayer, the adjustment of language, culture and theology progressed slowly.
When I first came to St. Mary Seminary in 2003, I felt there was not much difference from my own seminary in Korea. We prayed, ate and studied together. The kind embrace of the faculty and seminarians helped a foreigner not to be intimidated by a new environment. However, understanding classes and catching up with readings in English was hard. The theology courses were systematically designed and academically intense. Borrowing a classmate’s notes was a lifeline. Moreover, living with thirty other seminarians was living with brothers in unity. I eventually learned the rules of American football and played a few games. I sang for the choir and took part in the plays at the seminary.
Particularly, I valued my field education. At St. Mary’s, each seminarian is assigned to work outside the seminary every semester: some of the placements include a parish RCIA class, a parochial school, pastoral ministry at the hospital, a city counseling center for adolescent drug-addicts, and parish youth ministry. It is a life experience in which the seminarians are challenged to adapt their learning at the seminary to the reality outside.
The seminary also offered an opportunity to broaden our global view of the Church through Catholic Relief Services (CRS). CRS Global Fellows Program, in conjunction with the seminary, provided the seminarians opportunities to travel to third-world countries where the support from American Catholics was vital. Every year a couple of seminarians traveled to different underdeveloped countries and returned to share the stories of their immersions. I traveled to Madagascar, Africa in 2005 and found myself completely transformed as a result. The trip was an experience that changed my life forever and shaped my priesthood. After coming back from Africa, I started a running group called “Living Man”—the words come from St. Irenaeus: “The glory of God is the living man.” Our group of several seminarians, as well as some faculty members, ran the Cleveland Marathon and raised funds for the children in Madagascar. Continually remembering the poor has become a part of my priestly vocation. (Since 2005, “Living Man” has grown and we are working toward its 7th race in 2011.)
Another formative experience outside the classroom was living in Manhattan. My moral theology professor, Fr. Donald H. Dunson, helped me study Dorothy Day’s writings and encouraged me to live with the Catholic Workers. St. Joseph House, in the lower East side of Manhattan, is the motherhouse for the Catholic Worker Movement. I spent more than a month at St. Joseph House in the summer of 2006. I experienced voluntary poverty and non-violence through the works of mercy. Serving the homeless in New York City and learning and advocating for the powerless are part of living in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus Christ. Looking back, the four-year seminary experience was life-giving and nurturing for me. I was ready to move on to the priesthood.
On May 12, 2007, I was ordained priest for the Archdiocese of Deagu at St. John Cathedral in Cleveland, and assigned to St. Anthony of Padua in Parma, a beautiful suburban parish in the Cleveland diocese for two years. Working for parishioners at a parish was what I had desired for a long time. Living with brother priests—Fr. Dale Staysniak, Fr. Clem Metzger S.J., celebrating the Sunday liturgy, teaching RCIA and PSR classes, and playing with children were part of the beauty of parish life. Celebrating the parish’s 50-year anniversary was remarkable. However, the influence of secularism on parish life and merging and closing parishes due to a shortage of priests and financial deficit in the diocese of Cleveland influenced me to pursue practical learning to prepare the Korean Catholic Church for a similar future situation. So, as I was finishing my work at the parish, I applied for the Masters Program in Nonprofit Administration at John Carroll University in Cleveland.
Studying nonprofit administration is not what people expect a priest to do. Nevertheless, the faithful of the Church live in the world and we who are called by God need to work as if everything depended on us as St. Ignatius did to save souls. Although many priests manage nonprofit organizations without classroom learning, I think that it could be beneficial for a priest to learn important skills such as finance, human resources, and strategic planning to serve the faithful better. For the greater glory of God, we also work as if everything depended on God because everything we do becomes a part of God’s work in the end. Above all, it will be valuable to adapt my learning and experience in America to the Korean Catholic Church for the new evangelization.
Being immersed in Jesuit education was thrilling. When my time at John Carroll started, I found myself sitting in front of the Director of Campus Ministry to see if I could serve as a priest while studying. He hired me to be a Minister in Residence, living in a residence hall and providing pastoral care for the students. Resident Ministry has turned out to be one of the best things I have ever done—the students are eager to learn and serve, and their faith is fundamental to their lives. I have led them in the spiritual life through celebrating the sacraments, guiding retreats and helping find God in all things. They have been good friends who constantly remind me of what I need to be for them—a faithful priest, a humble servant and a friend of all.
I am in debt to America, where so many people have supported and walked with me. I never imagined that America would capture my heart. Looking at the country from the outside, especially through the eyes of media, did not prepare me for what I have experienced inside. I would not know how much American Catholics have been inspirational Good Samaritans for their brothers and sisters in need around the world. I would not know how hard priests, seminarians and the laity are striving to live against the dominant “culture of death.” I would not know how many men and women are living simply in accordance with their faith. The examples that American Catholics provide are a good teaching for other Catholic countries, especially for a foreign priest who is to go back to his missionary homeland. After eight years in America, American Catholics have nurtured me into the priest that I am and taught me that we are our brothers and sisters’ keepers. Now it is my turn to act on what I have seen. Thank you, America!