I know I won’t fall
· The story of a conversion between Sinŭiju and Rome ·
At the end of the 1930s a child of barely four years old was running through the streets of Sinŭiju on the northern boundary of Korea, the whole of which in those years was still under Japanese domination. She was Angela Pak, the first child of a family that had recently moved there.
Her mother, who had another little girl and was expecting her third child, would send her out to do the shopping. In spite of being scolded, Angela would run while carrying the food home. “Don’t run, you might hurt yourself”, her mother told her. But the child was certain: “I won’t fall over”. “if they see you running”, her mother said further, “people will think you have stolen the shopping”. Listening to these words, Angela stopped for a moment: for the first time, when she was only four, she heard the voice of her conscience ringing out. “I know I haven’t stolen anything, I know I have behaved well. What do I care about what other people may think?”.
Since then and throughout her life, always running, Angela continued to follow that voice. It was the voice that enabled her to become acquainted with the Catholic Church and even led her to a private audience with John XXIII in 1961: having heard her story, the Pope smiled, saying: “walk slowly!”.
More than 20 years elapsed between the two episodes. Between them great changes occurred in the world, in Korea, in the Church and in the life of the child who had grown up. Through new meetings and new discoveries Angela had blossomed into the woman with the passionate expression who tells of a faith capable of breaking down walls and of bringing about transformations: “Christian life means living the Risen Christ”. In addition to God’s strength, however, this tiny woman witnesses to the courage of letting ourselves be transformed by faith, entrusting to it all that is dearest to us.
To return to the 1950s, political events overwhelmed Angela’s life and that of her by then large family. A few years after its independence, Korea split into two: on 15 August 1948 the Republic of South Korea was proclaimed under American influence, while on 9 September the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea came into being, close to the Soviet Union.
Angela thus found herself growing up in a difficult country: for the curious and thoughtful teenager she had become, the suffering she experienced was enormous. In fact, the voice of the truth continued to accompany her through time, while the rectitude of her parents, who did not know Christianity, constantly guided her. Her Buddhist mother was always ready to share their rice with the monks who passed by: a gesture that remained impressed on her oldest daughter.
In the meantime the war that was to last three years (1950-1953), broke out between the two Koreas, with alternating phases. When it seemed as though the South was about to get the upper hand, China came down to help the Communists. Although she was only 16, Angela realized that it was necessary to flee, making the most of the retreat of the South’s army. A distant uncle lived below the 38th parallel: Angela wanted to go to him. To start with her parents were against the idea: it is not easy to leave one’s own land. However it was also hard not to listen to the words of Angela who was so determined, intelligent and wise.
The fantastic journey through the war-torn country marked the trek towards a new phase in the life of this girl and of her whole family.
In the South Angela studied and worked. She made friends with an American Methodist, a woman missionary who taught her English with a Bible that this woman then gave her. Despite the affection she felt for the missionary – and although she treasured what she had heard – Angela was not attracted by this message.
In the meantime she had another crucial encounter. In Seoul, through her work she met Spalanzini, the Italian Ambassador, who one day gave her some news. Rome had set up two scholarships for young Koreans. Angela could hardly believe it: for her, always attracted by Europe (rather than by the United States, like most South Koreans), it was a precious opportunity. Having learned basic Italian from the wife of the Consul, Mattei, she won the scholarship and continued to practise her Italian on the ship that sailed from Hong Kong, bound for Naples. Her final destination was Rome.
When she arrived in Italy on 20 October 1959 Angel was 24. She did not have much time to get her bearings: her lessons began at La Sapienza on 5 November. It was precisely at the Faculty of Letters that Angela met “one of the two priests who marked my life”. It was Fr Ilarino from Milan (Pope John’s apostolic preacher), who taught the history of Christianity. In listening to the Professor, the young woman realized that the Catholic Church was what she had been looking for.
Angela, who was living at an institute of lay sisters at the time, enthusiastically told them of her decision to be baptized. Their answer: “Well done! Like that you will go to heaven”, acted as a whiplash. She did not like their comment at all. “What will happen to my relatives who, although they are not baptized, live with a conscience and with profound honesty? Where will they go when they die? If it is only form that counts for this God then this may not be the God I am seeking; no Baptism. I will continue to follow Jesus, whom I have come to know and love through reading the Gospel”.
Therefore although the voice of her conscience had led the young woman to the threshold of Catholicism, the words of the community distanced her from it. In fact Angela looked at the substance of things. In spite of her suffering, Fr Ilarino said not a word. Angela’s hour had not yet come.
In Rome in the meantime she got to know Antonietta Satta-Medici, who was President of the Italy-Korea Association: it was the beginning of a firm friendship, also in the faith (this woman was later to become her godmother). Her Baptism was, in fact, only delayed.
The crucial episode occurred in Siena in August 1960: wandering through the city, Angela chanced to enter a Church: it was the moment of Communion. She unexpectedly felt a wind that was blowing her towards the altar: “It is he you are seeking”, the voice said to her. And so it was that Angela received Baptism and Communion on the morning of 25 March 1961, in the new church on Via Tagliamento in Rome, while in the afternoon Cardinal Cento imparted Confirmation to her. Fr Ilarino was there but he did not make his presence known. Angela only learned of it later.
On 25 March he was to return in her family’s history: four of its members would receive Baptism on, precisely, 25 March (the last one in 2001, Agnes, her great niece who lives in Tokyo).
For Angela a period of deep joy began which she was to share with the people she loved: she wrote long letters to her family in Korea in which she described the happiness and blessing of belonging to the Church. Even at a distance, her words had an echo: they were the vital seeds that prompted one of her sisters to convert in 1962 and then, year after year, the whole family. Her father alone died without having received Baptism, although he had several times expressed a desire for it. At death’s door, however, he let a tear fall: the Church calls it “Baptism of Desire”.
And it was her faith, strong although she was constantly on the move, that helped Angela to live through the hardest but also the most intense moment in her life, that of her greatest abandonment to the Lord: on 12 August 1986 Cristina Chiara, known as Chicchi, died. She was Angela’s only and deeply beloved daughter (born from her marriage with an Italian study companion), who never reached her 17th birthday on this earth.
In her turn enlivened by a mature and fruitful Christianity, Chicchi knew well that only with God’s help would she have the strength to face the trial and to stay “faithful to her Christian vocation”. And Chicchi also wanted this strength for the people she loved: “You will be brave enough, Mummy”, she said to Angela. During her illness, it was Chicchi herself who gave her guidance. When her daughter closed her eyes, her mother reached “the depths of suffering”, but in feeling that Chicchi’s soul had drawn close to heaven, Angela felt deeply at peace; the Lord conquers death at the very moment when it seems to wrench our loved ones from us.
Much later, in reading the words of Psalm 117, she was to understand that God’s love had prevailed over her love as a mother. “And I also understood”, she said gently, “Mary’s face in Michelangelo’s Pietà”.
Fifteen years later, in 1999, she began to learn Hebrew: she knew that God’s word is the most important thing – “Jesus says to Satan three times ‘it is written’, but I wondered where it was written”. Angela entered into a profound encounter with Scripture through the Biblicist Fr Giovanni Odasso, Professor of exegesis and Biblical theology at the Lateran University (“the second priest who made a mark on my life”).
Her thirst was truly ardent: Angela cited the words of Jerome who said: “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Jesus”. This incredible woman was struck by profound amazement when she found out that not all priests are also Biblicists.
And so it was that strengthened by Isaiah’s words: “if you will not believe surely you shall not be established” (Is 7:9), Angela lived out the liturgy of the Word daily. In her search for the truth, for the Kingdom and for its justice, in thanking the Lord, Angela asks us with shining eyes: “to live as risen people on this earth”.
St. Peter’s Square
Aug. 24, 2019