Monday, 1 October 2012

It was victims of the last of these persecutions, known as the Great Byungin Persecution, who met their deaths on this site. To give an idea of the hostility of the climate for Christianity in this period, the 10,000 martyrs (men, women and children) over a 75 year period came from a Catholic population thought to number only about 23,000 in the mid 19th century. Praying my rosary in the idyllic surroundings, i dedicated each of the five sorrowful mysteries to the children, soldiers, politicians, journalists and people (especially the sick), respectively, of the Korean peninsula. At an information point i saw for the first time the wonderful resemblance of a snow-bound aerial photograph of the shrine, to the famous Russian icon of Our Lady of Vladimir, also known as Our Lady of Tenderness. The rosary way traces the outline of Mary and her divine Son. Interestingly, the hedged-off area which denotes Our Lord’s head contains a burial place; the deceased person’s son steadfastly refused to allow this grave to be moved, because his father had been a native of what is now North Korea, and had expressed his wish that his grave be moved only when he could be laid to rest in his home town. Meanwhile, on the day in January when i set off from the train station in Bristol, a friend of mine gave me a little wooden reproduction of this very icon, Our Lady of Vladimir. Visiting the church where a Mass was in progress, a lady in the repository gave me an illustrated English language book about the shrine (i gave her another one of the little Russian pictures of St George). When Mass was finished i gave my icon of Our Lady of Vladimir to the appreciative parish priest and chief developer of the shrine, Fr Francisco Xavier, in return for which he arranged for me to be given a beautiful block-mounted photograph of the statue of Our Lady of Namyang. Then, after praying for unborn children before a white sculpture of Our Lady of Guadalupe, at the enclosure dedicated to the Divine Mercy, the organist, who spoke excellent English, came to find me and invited me to join her and the priest for a most enjoyable lunch in an upmarket sort of canteen. Before leaving, a DVD about the shrine was given to me to go with the other things, and i left leaflets and information about Ozjornoje and Mary’s Meals[1].
Very Catholic: Our Lady of Vladimir, left, with snow-bound aerial view of the Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary, Namyang.

   I was then looking to get back to Seoul, not least in order to investigate the availability of flights from Japan to Mexico. The organist kindly gave me a lift; as we drove i learnt that she’d lived for a time in Los Angeles, and one of her sons had attended Beverly Hills High School. After Mass at Myeongdong cathedral i checked back into the hostel where i’d stayed before, and wrote an entry for the blog: The Korean Walk. On Thursday 7th July i was at the cathedral again for 10am Mass, before walking to a large tourist information centre, where it was possible to book an overnight ferry from the port of Busan to Japan for Tuesday 12th July. I also made arrangements to fly from Osaka to Mexico City on 27th July, and from Mexico to Rome, via Buenos Aires, on 5th August. Meanwhile it started to tip down with rain, but clad in my poncho (whose little German flag seemed to have a special piquancy in Korea) i shuffled around an outdoor exhibition of black-and-white photographs, with captions in Korean and English, concerned in a very partisan way with the efforts of the “UN Command”[2], on behalf of the South, in the Korean War. Fortunes fluctuated dramatically from June 1950 until July 1951, but thereafter congealed into stalemate/ trench warfare, until the signing of the Armistice on 27 July 1953. A bloody and awful conflict, it led to not insignificant casualties among British troops (well over a thousand dead), though 88% of the international force was from the USA.  I noticed that the phrase ‘augmentation troops’ was rendered ‘argumentation troops’ in the otherwise good translations.

   Somewhat craftily, i then went to one of Seoul’s coach stations and climbed on board a bus bound for Gyeongju, the ancient capital of the Silla kingdom. On the journey, as we passed between often thickly forested medium-sized mountains, a staple of South Korean topography, jubilant scenes were shown on the television, with people reacting to news that Pyeongchang had been awarded the right to host the 2018 Winter Olympics.[3] At about 10pm we arrived at Gyeongju’s bus station, where i put a few coins into one of two computer terminals in order to check my emails, while trying to calculate just how long any such devices would survive if they were left without round-the-clock surveillance in the bus station in Bristol. Then i headed into town, conscious of the preponderance of traditional Korean/oriental houses, with their roofs curled up at the corners to reveal intricate layers of painted timbers. I crossed a park with what looked like a huge artificially created hill, learning only later that this would have been one of several ancient tombs of the kings of Silla – like smaller, grassier versions of the Egyptian pyramids. The great place i eventually found in which to sleep was a little attic room, which could be locked from the inside, above a restaurant premises.

[1] The hand of providence appeared to manifest itself once again here, as Fr Francisco Xavier would be going to Medjugorje, the shrine of Our Lady in Bosnia-Hercegovina which is the charity’s spiritual home, to address a conference for young people the following month.  
[2] Protesting at the absence of representation by newly communist China on the United Nations security council, in 1950 the Soviet Union boycotted its meetings, enabling the US and its allies to market the military intervention in Korea as a UN operation.
[3] During planning for the Summer Olympics hosted by Seoul in 1988, serious discussions took place between North and South Korean officials, to look at the possibility of staging some events in the North, but nothing could be agreed. Given however that controversy over the use of banned substances left the most lasting memory of those Games, and that some of the ‘doves of peace’ were incinerated by the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony, it might be hoped that the organisers of Pyeongchang 2018 will be prepared to conduct similar discussions with their North Korean counterparts, perhaps this time with a more accommodating disposition. 

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