Finding space for God

Sarah Mac Donald is Editor of the Far East magazine. She speaks to Korean seminarian John Paul Seung-Jun Ro about finding his missionary path with the Columbans. This article was first published in the September/October 2022 issue of the Far East magazine.

“I found the Columban missionaries through the internet,” John Paul Seung-Jun Ro recalls. He was at a crossroads in his life. Working in an Italian restaurant in Korea, he had completed his obligatory two-year military service and he had also spent some time with the Salesians, but that had not worked out. As he worked away as a chef, his desire to serve the poor and work overseas as a missionary priest still tugged at him. “I had a lot of time for thinking while I was making the food. I thought about the missionary experience I had when I was seventeen. The Diocese of Cheongju sent me to the Philippines as part of a youth programme. There I helped some of Manila’s poor who tried to make enough money to buy food each day by recycling trash from the rubbish mound known as Smokey Mountain.”

With a name like John Paul, it is not hard to guess that the 26-year-old was born during the pontificate of the late Polish Saint, John Paul II, who led the church between 1979 and 2005. “I was born in 1996. My father died when I was three years old. After that, my mother took care of me and my older sisters. She was very hardworking but when I was twelve years old, she got depressed and wanted to die. She had been a catholic but was non practicing. The local parish priest used to visit our home and he gently encouraged my mother. Later she re-found God and her depression improved. She wanted to live more and found some hope. She wanted to know more about who God is. The priest helped to strengthen my mother’s faith. I saw this priest’s ministry and I wanted to become a diocesan priest like him, helping poor depressed people to survive. I especially wanted to help young people who live with parents suffering from depression. I made contact with the vocations office in Cheongju diocese.”

As a South Korean teenager, he felt unable to talk to my friends about God. “Some of my friends do not believe in anything, some are Protestant, and some are Buddhist.” The opportunity to participate in a youth missionary experience in the Philippines was an ideal way to explore his faith in a deeper way. “I was very shocked by the poverty I witnessed there. After that experience I began to research the different missionary congregations working abroad with the poor and marginalised. I decided to join the Salesians when I was twenty. I felt I could serve the poor in a more focused way as a missionary than as a schoolteacher. Offering spiritual nourishment to others, I felt, was more fulfilling and the right path for me.”

However, having made this weighty decision, it was not all plain sailing. He experienced the Salesians as “hard working” and the formation programme as “busy.” But there was so much exposure to different things that it left him with “little time for my inner journey. My prayer life began to suffer, and I was not finding the space I needed to ask myself the big questions in life. I was not able to pray, and I became depressed. There was no time for self-care, and I had little understanding of myself and my journey.” Then his formation studies were interrupted by two years of mandatory military service. When he returned to the Salesians, it was felt that he needed to take time out. That was in 2019. He was 24 years old.

While John Paul was working in the Italian restaurant in Seoul, he came across the Missionary Society of St Columban on the internet. “When I went to a vocations gathering hosted by the Columbans, it was different.” The Columban missionaries did not spend time revealing their ‘achievements.’ Yet, when he heard Columban Fr Lee Je-hoon, who is working in Myanmar, speaking about ministry there, he was “very impressed” and it “rekindled my passion for mission abroad. After that, I decided to join the Columbans, and I began formation in 2020 when I was 25 years old.”

In August, John Paul left for the Philippines where he will undertake a Spiritual Year along with five other Columban seminarians. After his spiritual year ends, he will begin his theology studies in Manila. Speaking to the Far East in Dalgan Park while he was studying English in Ireland, he said he felt he had found the space he needs to explore his faith and journey towards priesthood. “The first step in this mission is to know who I am,” he explains.

He also believes too many people nowadays are working so hard that they cannot really relax. Even holidays are spent ‘doing’ because of the pressure to be always busy – going somewhere, watching something or socialising with someone. He has learned to find space and spend time with himself, searching and learning about who he is. For John Paul, the Irish are more laid back than the Koreans and it is something he is anxious to learn from. His encounter with older Columban missionaries in Dalgan also taught him about missionary hospitality.

He paid tribute to Fr Donal O’Keeffe, who was Rector of the Columban Formation House in Seoul while he studied there. The programme combined study with collaborative work and face to face spiritual direction which allowed him to “slowly face himself and look at his weaknesses and meet Jesus who is in my weakness.” He used to think that, “God was only in certain special experiences or places. But God was waiting for me in my weakest part. In other words, God has always been with me. I have become more human little by little, but I am still a work in progress. This is a journey that Jesus and I walk together with the countless people I am meeting now and will meet in the future.”

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