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The choir girls

· The faces and lives of the young girls who will listen to Pope Francis ·

“I was in Rome when Benedict XVI resigned: I realized it was true when I saw that the Pope’s twitter account had been suspended”. Yu-jin Shin, a just graduated computer programmer, is the Korean age of 27. For us, she would be 25: in Korea age is calculated to include the nine months spent in the womb - the greatest political statement regarding the beginning life - and another year is added immediately at the 1st of January.

Yu-jin Shin, who will be in Daejon to take part in the Asian Youth Day, sings and is the leader of her parish choir. She also leads a group of young Catholics who study the Bible. “The Catechism speaks to us about real life issues. It’s a way of relating the Bible to the lives of young people, and a way of sharing experiences with the other members of the group”.Yu-jin Shin converted 14 years ago. “I was baptized through the influence of my mother Lucia. And it’s also to her that I owe my passion for singing which I’ve had since my years in elementary school”. The young lady denies being talented, but Rena, who is just next to her, corrects her: she’s truly the best, otherwise she wouldn’t be the group’s soloist and leader.

Elizabeth, Rena e the other young ladies in the parish choir.

If her mother was a major influence on the religious choice of Yu-jin Shin, her grandmother was so for her mother. “My grandmother secretly became a Catholic. Her husband was totally against it”. The history of Korea is marked by long periods of persecution.The decision to be baptized secretlyhad long been almost obligatory in order to avoidbeing driven out of the community; if one were captured by the authorities, imprisonment and torture were inevitable.

“My grandmother fell ill at the age of 56,”Yu-jin explains. “She was then admitted to the hospital of Santa Maria Seoul. Her roommate was a Catholic who greatly helped her spiritually.From then on my grandmother began secretly to attend Mass. One day, however, she suddenly fainted during a celebration: that is how her family learned that she was being drawn to Catholicism. My grandfather, who was quite taken aback, no longerhindered her. Shortly thereafter my grandmother was baptized, but 15 days later she died. Her funeral was held in a Catholic Church. My mother was baptized exactly one year later, at the age of 32. My father Augustine, however, was convinced to convert by my brother, who had wanted become a priest but he died very young, at the age of 13”.

For Elizabeth the decision to participate in the Asian Youth Day was painful: she is looking for a job, and looking for job in Korea, despite an official unemployment rate of just three percent (in reality, the youth unemployment is very high), requires an absolute commitment. Elizabeth explains that devoting even one day a month to preparing the choiris valuable time taken away from job hunting. It’s not surprising, then, that many analysts list among the causes of the country’s high suicide rates the stress of a looking for a job. Yet even whenone finds a job, things do not necessarily improve: the Koreans have the longest workdays in the world and very few days off.

A highly pressured work-world exists, then, in which the need to submit to elder colleagues and superiors is keenly felt. This often results in real abuse. According to a recent study, nearly half of all nurses have experienced sexual harassment by doctors in the workplace.

Rena - she emphasizes that her name comes from reincarnation; her Korean name is You-jung Song - is 22 years old and was baptized four years ago, on Easter Sunday. After Catholic school, she entered the Jesuit Sogang University. “My conversion came during atime of high stress from studying and preparing for the KSAT (Korean Scholastic Aptitude Test, i.e. high school exams). High school exams are another hurdle and source of stress that every Korean has to overcome to reach adulthood. The very challenge of preparing for the exam, quite apart from what it demands, is a rite of passage. It is perhaps the most important moment for every teen. Nearly 75 percent of the student population participates in additional private lessons to prepare for the exam.

“At the time, I fell ill because of too much study,”Rena recounts. “My grandmother also fell ill, and my aunt had financial problems, a series of quite unfortunate situations”. The problems began for the girl when her mother put her under too much pressure. So-called “tiger mothers” are a phenomenon as Chinese as they are Korean. An English teacher in Seoul recently asked her 16 year-old students what they fear most: the most common answer by far was, “my mother”.

Parents place extremely high expectations on their children. They not only expect to be proud of them, something to brag about with their friends; they also expect them to support them financially in their old age. Even today it is an established custom that a son or daughter’s first paycheck be given directly to the parents as a symbolic gesture of gratitude. The practice is also present among Koreans residing abroad. An American young man of Korean origin who works for a company that builds oil refineries recently said that his mother demanded not only the first paycheckfromhis first job, but every first paycheck from each new job. The matter became quite a burden for him,sincein the past ten years he had changed jobs every 12 months on average.

“The KSAT,”Rena continues, “is the most important test of our lives and I am not exaggerating”. And she’s right: just consider that on the day of the exam in Korea, nearly one million high school students will take an exam that will serve as the basis for entrance into the major universities. On that day the stock market opens an hour later. Even the flights schedules for several airlines are adjusted and police officers with ambulances escort students who are late to the various places where the exam is given. Many offices and shops open one hour later in order to guarantee that there be the least possible traffic so as to make it easier for students who are on their way to the exam.

“All of this seems exaggerated to the Western ear,”Rena says. “But in Korea, if you don’t do well on this test, you won’t be able to gain entrance to the universities that count, it won’t be possible to get a good job, and it’s possible that no one will want to marry you because of your low social status,”she concludes almost in jest. Her expression, however, betrays no smile.

It was precisely during this intensely stress time that Rena drew near to Catholicism. “My mother was already Catholic; she received baptized five years ago. My father, who is a scientist and works at the university, is an atheist. Personally, I always had a good impression of Catholics, including through the stories I heard about John Paul II, who came here to Korea on two occasions before I was born. Some time ago I read an article about an official apology which Pope John Paul II made to each group that had suffered through the mistakes committed in the Church in the past, like the Jews and the Muslims. I was very struck by it and thought that this wastruly a great gesture aimed at creating a climate of universal religious reconciliation. Then there are my Catholic friends who do a lot of volunteer work, which is something quite unusual for young people my age. They inspired me to follow the same path of faith that inspired theirown choices. Now, like them, I teach to underprivileged children and it is something that fills me with joy.It is an activity that has given me a great deal a human perspective”.

Do you ever speak about faith with your father? “No. Not that he was ever opposed to my mother and I becoming Catholic, but for now I do not dare broach the subject with him. My mother tried to draw him closer to the faith, but for now her attempts have failed. Fortunately, not in every respect: my parents, for example, take part in monthly meetings in the parish that are called Me, Marriage encounter: several couples discuss the Bible and their personal lives, their relationship, how to improve their married life,they share their problems. Now my father is also convinced about the benefits of going; perhaps it is a first step towards conversion”.

According to a recent survey in Korea, themost trusted religion is Catholicism, while only 20 percent of those interviewed say they trust Protestantism. We asked Rena how she explains such a difference between confessions.

“Surely,”Rena responds, “one of the explanations lies in the way they evangelize. The Protestants can be very aggressive. For example, at the universities there are people who approach you boisterously (to say the least) in an attempt to lead you to their church. If you don’t respond decisively, they don’t go away. They insist, they continue in their bullying proselytizing. However, this isn’t the only factor: my grandparents were Protestants, and I realize now that their way of living the faith is different than our own. They pray a lot for their own well being; in prayer, their thoughts turn to the lone individual. But we Catholics live and experience the faith in a more participatory way; we pray for the good of the whole community and for society in general. Perhaps this reason also carries its own weight, maybe this is why Catholicism arouses greater sympathy”. (Christian Martini Grimaldi).

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