Do you love me?

Fr Noel O'Neill arrived in South Korea in 1957 four years after the Korean War ended in 1953. The whole country had been devastated by war and was still in the throes of reconstruction.

Like most Columbans at that time in Korea, Fr O'Neill began his mission work building up and running parishes - this was his mission for 24 years.

During his time in Kwangju, he became involved with the Mudeong Institution, also known as the Beggars Camp, which gave support to needy and marginalised people. The Institution was located on half an acre and housed 600 people of all ailments: alcoholics, psychiatric patients, orphans, homeless people and physically and intellectually impaired people.

When Fr O'Neill visited the Institution he saw that the intellectually impaired were not able to speak up for themselves and it was during this time that he felt drawn to do something positive for them, 'the forgotten ones'.

Then an incident occurred. Fr O'Neill was called to the hospital to visit You Ha, a gravely ill intellectually impaired young woman from the Mudeong Institution. He rushed to the hospital and arrived  just in time to hear You Ha utter one word "Kamsahamnida" which means "thank you" and she breathed her last.

As You Ha had no family, the hospital was going to use her body for medical research. On hearing this, Fr O'Neill took on the responsibility of the funeral expenses and bought a grave in the Catholic cemetery. On the tombstone he had the following inscribed:

Will you forgive society?
Will you forgive the Church?
For too long have we ignored you.

Fr O'Neill became increasingly involved with the intellectually impaired and won support from the Columbans and the local bishop to dedicate himself full-time to working with them.

He travelled to Australia to look for ideas and was introduced to L'Arche in Sydney. He later travelled to Canada and experienced living in one of Jean Vanier's L'Arche communities. (Jean Vanier is the founder of L'Arche Communities).

With the support from government, religious organisations and individuals, he has been able to bring the intellectually impaired out of isolation. They now live in apartment blocks with the rest of the community, work alongside others who are not impaired and participate in religious activities. He has successfully challenged the accepted wisdom of keeping "them" hidden; he has made "them" visible.

Fr O'Neill clearly states, "all that is required is that we respond positively to the questions that intellectually impaired people ask us:
Do you love me?
Will you come out for a meal?
Will you come for a walk?
It's the fundamental question of the Gospel, Do you love me?"

Watch video: Do you love me?

Read more from The Far East, January/February 2012