Paul’s House-Churches Today

WindowCompassion interviews Reverend WollKi Chung, right, Director of Pastoral Ministry in the Archdiocese of Seoul

Q: The opening words of Paul’s Letter “to Philemon” and “to the church at your house” remind us of an important aspect of early Christian experience of faith. Before there was need for vast basilicas to gather large numbers of the faithful for worship services in one giant assembly, the “church” or community of believers met in homes. Since Vatican II, Catholics throughout the world have been rediscovering beneficial ways in which small Christian communities within a large parish can deepen bonds of communion and foster more active participation in sharing one’s spiritual gifts. We would be grateful, Fr. Chung, to know how Asian Catholics are sharing in this hope of Vatican II.

Fr. Chung: The Conference of Asian Bishops in 1990 articulated its vision that the church in Asia will have to be “a communion of communities, where laity, religious and clergy recognize and accept each other as sisters and brothers,” and “a participatory church where the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to all the faithful — lay, religious and cleric alike — are recognized and activated so that the church may be built up and its mission realized.”

Q: While the number of parishioners declines in Europe and other parts of the world, we hear of continuing dramatic growth in the Korean Catholic Church.

Fr. Chung: The average number of people in a Korean parish is over 5,000. With such large congregations, it is very difficult for priests to have any personal relationship with so many people. In 1992, the Archdiocese of Seoul committed itself to develop Small Christian Communities (SCCs) in order to do evangelization.

Q: What does an Asian experience of a Small Christian Community include?

WindowFr. Chung: Small Christian Communities (SCCs), known elsewhere as Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs) have four essential marks. First, the members meet at their homes as neighbors and on a regular basis of once a week or once a month. Anyone who lives in the neighborhood is invited. It meets at a place where life exists, sharing and dealing with problems derived from life. Secondly, the communities are founded on the experience of gospel sharing. This takes place not through lectures or sermons, but by inviting the presence of the risen Christ, listening to His words, and meditating on His existence in our life. Thirdly, the members act together out of faith, looking to one another’s needs. Fourthly, these small communities remain united with the wider church through the parish.

Q: Was there any precedent for your initiation of the SCCs in Korea?

Fr. Chung: Before starting SCCs in 1992, “Ban Gatherings” existed in the Archdiocese of Seoul since the 1970s. This was an occasion for neighbors to study catechism, pray and receive information from parish priests every month. In the early stages, these groups were organized to provide efficiency and convenience for pastors in terms of basic organization of the parish administrative structure. But already by the late 1970s, the Korean Catholic Church showed an interest and concern for the Basic Ecclesial Communities in Latin America, and the “cell ministry” of the Korean Protestant church which emphasized the importance of lay ministry.

In the early 1980s, newsletters were published to support the monthly Ban Gatherings which were managed by leaders who explained the content which they learned in the monthly diocesan education session. Because most of the Ban Gathering members were women who worked at home without a job in the workplace, the education sessions for Ban leaders were held during the day when male lead14 ers, daytime workers, had no opportunity to join the education sessions. Nevertheless, existing Ban Gatherings had become the basic preparation of SCCs.

Q: How has the role of women in the Korean Catholic Church become more influential as a result of Vatican II?

Fr. Chung: Since the 1960s, Korea has been rapidly developing economically, industrially, technologically, and culturally under western influence. Korean modernization has paved the way for women to move toward freedom and equal rights. Church documents of Vatican II contribute to help people understand the basic concept of human rights and equality among men and women. But the patriarchal culture is still rooted in Korean society and controls human behavior, especially human relationships. It will take time to change old customs and beliefs in Korea. The Catholic Church’s teaching is different from the Neo-Confucian system of ethics, which guarantees neither rights nor responsibilities to women and increases the burden of discrimination based on inequality.

Q:  What was one of the most significant challenges to this archdiocesan endeavor?

Fr. Chung: Because our culture places great respect on class, seniority, the role of the male, and hierarchy, the parish priests significantly influenced the outcome of the project from one parish to the next.  The “dominant style” of leadership from the past made it difficult for some to share power and alter customary pastoral plans. Likewise, it was not easy to build the system of collaboration given the stereotyped attitude of the parishioners, as well as their lack of experience of collaboration and dialogue.

On the other hand, priests who have learned to exercise a “communion style” of leadership have had the opportunity to listen to the voices of their parishioners through the SCCs.  We all learned to change.  When I worked with eight priests in the archdiocesan office, some of them said that I did not listen to them, that I had only listened to what I wanted to hear. I did not listen to what was different from my ideas or when I was criticized. However, the more I listened to the people and their desires with deep interest in the process of the SCCs in parishes, the more I changed my own leadership style from a dominant to a communion model.

Q:  Now that you are fifteen years further down the road, what have been the successes along the way?

Fr. Chung: There have been many positive results from implementing SCCs. The first positive result is the building of community among neighbors and parishes in the Korean Catholic Church. Lay ministry was mainly strengthened by lecture, discussion and sharing sessions. From 1994 to 2005, more than 8000 leaders of SCCs attended monthly lectures and practiced what they learned in their own neighborhood SCCs.  Lay leaders became active as agents not of the clergy but of the People of God in their parishes after they understood communion ecclesiology.  Another positive result was the development of the faith life of the parishioners on the basis of the Word of God. Many other good things flowed from these groups: social action toward the poor and marginalized, collaboration among priests, religious and lay leaders, and finally, meetings between theologians and lay people for theological reflection in the SCCs.

Q: What inspires you as you go forward in fostering these groups?

Fr. Chung: St. Paul the Apostle says in First Corinthians 12 that the foundation for collaboration between sisters and brothers in the community rests on the fact that our diverse gifts come from the one Holy Spirit, Lord and God. Paul also gives us many examples of collaboration. He refers to himself and Apollos as “servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries” (1 Cor 4:10). Notably, Aquila and Prisca, a Jewish-Christian couple, were co-workers in Paul’s Corinthian mission (1 Cor 16:19). Paul’s words and example provide us good foundations for collaborative ministry in our parishes today. •

Photos credits: Father Chung - Victor Hoagland, C.P.; Seoul - iStockPhoto.

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Paul Zilonka, C.P.
Mary Ann Strain, C.P.
Kevin Dance, C.P.
Suzanne Thomas
James Fitzgerald
Joseph Jones, C.P.,
Eastern Province
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Mary Ann Strain, C.P.

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