A look at Korean women as models of charity
Agnes Han is 70-years-old, and for 30 years she has been a weekly volunteer for the disabled, the lonely, the terminally ill, widows and essentially anyone who is need of a physical and psychological presence who will listen to them. Agnes decided to be baptized later in life, she was 36-years-old. Her husband and children follows her and also became Catholic. The Korean women of Agnes’ generation have a lot of power in the family, they are the ones who run it. Like Agnes’ family, there are many similar stories of conversion in Korea.
Agnes began volunteering when she was told about the organization by a friend—she comes from a generation of networking, a generation guided by word of mouth and not by tweeting. Her contemporaries are nearly a half-million people in number, many of which are members of the Legion of Mary. Founded in Ireland, the Legion of Mary is a Catholic lay organization which was established in Korea at the end of the war in 1953 thanks to Father Harold Henry. In three years the Korean war had caused nearly two million deaths and managed to separate the Koreans into two different countries, geographically joined, but far apart in every other way.
The ways to Catholicism are infinite. Like Agnes another member of the Legion, Maria Song, was baptized at a later age after she and her husband decided to convert, “for me a relationship with the Virgin Mary was revolutionary, I feel her motherly presence, she gives me a sense of serenity, peace and spiritual care which I was missing before.” Another convert, Angela Ho, was Protestant but not really practising, however everything changed after her conversion. “I prayed that my husband would also be converted”, Angela remembers. One year later he converted. Catholicism has also brought her closer to her cultural roots: “Like all Koreans, because of Confucian influences, I have a great amount of respect for my ancestors, and as a Protestant this sense was missing, while as a Catholic I have discovered prayers for the dead, which helps me stay connected to my family.”
The Legion of Mary is organized like a pyramid, each level is identified with names that evoke ancient Roman institutions. At the lowest level is the praesidium which is the primary cell at the parish level, usually consisting of about a dozen people. After this comes the curia which supervises several praesidia. The next level is the comitium which supervises the work of the curias, then the regia which is in charge of the leadership in the biggest dioceses. In these dioceses there is a national council called a senatus. The senatus is the principal organ which is composed of lay people, as is the rest of the organization, and provides the directives for the lower levels. It is at the level of the praesidium where the volunteers organize and undertake, always in groups of four, the various volunteer operations for the different areas according to the proper district.
One of the most touching experiences that Agnes remembers is when she was at Nanjido, which in the 1980’s was an exposed dump site (today a popular site of theme parks), with about ten families who, with no other source for their livelihood, were fishing among the garbage for anything which hadn’t already deteriorated and which they could re-sell. Agnes’ praesidium took care of and fed over 40 babies—children born among the garbage—who would have otherwise been “lost” in the brutal misery of the shantytown, barely able to survive.
The Legion of Mary, however, does not only attend to material misery, but also serves people who, for both insignificant and significant reasons, are suffering from ailments afflicting the spirit such as depression and mental problems.
As Bishop Andrew Yeom Soo-jung, auxilary bishop of Seoul, says, “more and more people are discovering the Catholic faith in Korea, today Catholics are over ten percent of the population; there’s an emptiness in people, as a result of our hectic society, which the Catholic virtues are able to fulfill. I always say, come and experience it, give it a try!”.
As a young man, Bishop Andrew was a volunteer for the Legion of Mary. He also grew up with the effects of the war, he knew the hardships of the post-war generation well. He says, “Korean women comprise 60% of all Catholics, for historical and cultural reasons. Korea has been greatly influenced by the Confucian tradition which divides the society in very distinct classes and women are the ones who suffer the most discrimination since they come after fathers/husbands and even after children. Christianity gave them the strength to claim equality and dignity with all the other elements of a hierarchically organized society. It’s because of this that the women in the Legion of Mary, who constitute 60% of their members and are mostly middle-aged housewives with grown children, have discovered their role and value in society which generally measures the dignity of a person with standards of efficiency and performance.”
The Legion of Mary holds two annual meetings in parishes at which all members are present. There is no dress code and no particular uniform that they must wear. They are people, both parishioners and non-parishioners, who simply volunteer their free time. The Legion of Mary is completely autonomous from the diocesan bishop, although there is always a link of dialogue between him and the organization since the weekly meetings are held at the local parish churches.
Father Augustine Seo is the pastor at the Yeon Hee Dong parish church in Seoul and he is often present at the weekly meetings. During the meetings the legionaires share their personal insights and their reports about what took place during the week; they are able to exchange their stories and experiences with one another. Usually, each meeting begins with a long prayer. On the table is a statue of the Virgin Mary with lit candles and at the end of the table is the Legion of Mary’s banner. It is to Mary that the women turn their eyes during the opening prayer.
The Legion of Mary is not just an example to inspire and nourish Christian values, such as charity and compassion, but also a great example of democracy. All members of the senatus are elected by its own members by way of a secret vote. Whoever is nominated to make decisions regarding the organization of the various volunteer operations does so with the consensus of the whole community. Although the Legion of Mary is always identified by its banner and the Virgin Mary is always at its center, every parish is free to give themselves a particular name since, as Agnes points out, “yes democracy exists among us, but democracy and equality do not mean uniformity; if there is something I have learned in these thirty years of being a legionaire it is that empathy for your neighbour comes from the reciprocal exhaltation of our differences, and discovering the beauty and value of that which is not similar, and not simply and automatically liking what we have in common.”
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