Christmas in Korea

Fr Noel O'Neill tells us about the sad side of Christmas.

It was Christmas Eve, 1981. A few months previously I had begun to live at Emmaus, a community home for a small group of people with special needs. Now being Christmas, I could see how our community was small but beautiful, poor but rich in many ways and powerless but prophetic.

A couple of hours before Midnight Mass, our group went to visit the centre of the city. The Salvation Army man stood in the middle of the shopping centre ringing the bell and crying for the salvation of "Jesus 1981". Passersby dipped into their pockets and dropped 100 won (10 cents), a 500 won (50 cents) or an occasional man won jari ($10) into the bucket.

We stopped to listen to a group of college students singing Christmas Carols in front of the Post Office. They sounded happy and joyful, but I wondered had they any notion about the real meaning of Christmas. At the end of the street we got a glimpse of the line of army buses with the young armed men peeping out the bus windows. It was a reminder that we were still under a military dictatorship.

On return to the community home we prepared for our Midnight Mass and rehearsed the two hymns we had learned over the past few months. The floor of our small oratory was covered with straw and in one corner lay the crib with the Infant Jesus.

Before Mass I noticed Kyeong Ja kneeling fervently before the crib. It seemed as if she was having a private conversation with the Infant Jesus - He gazing at her and she gazing at Him.

We had a big congregation for our Midnight Mass, seven people, more than the number at the First Christmas. After Mass we sat around and sang and danced and ate rice cakes into the early hours of the morning before we all retired to sleep.

I must have been asleep an hour or two when I heard some crying from the room beneath me coming from Kyeong Ja's room. Since the crying continued I decided to go down and see what was the trouble. I knocked on the door and Kyeong Ja opened it. I asked her why was she upset on such a happy feast day.

"I wish to see my baby", she said. "What baby" I asked.

It was then I learned how Kyeong Ja had been sexually abused in the institution she had lived in prior to coming to Emmaus. She became pregnant. When the baby boy was born he was taken from her.

The Infant Jesus in the crib brought back the memory.

Christmas brings back memories to us all.

Fr Noel O'Neill has been a missionary in Korea since 1957.

Read more from The Far East, November/December 2012