Remembering Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-Hwan (May 8, 1922 - February 16, 2009)

Brother Anthony of Taizé

The first time I met Cardinal Kim, we were in a rickety shack built over the water in a harbor in Hong Kong in 1977. I had come from the Philippines, where I was living, to be with a group of brothers from our main community in France. We had been there for a month, with our prior, the founder of the Community of Taizé, Brother Roger. Suddenly we saw a small boat coming across the harbor with a tall man standing in it—Cardinal Kim. He was visiting Hong Kong and had heard that Brother Roger was there, so he had come to meet him.

Later I several times heard the Cardinal talk about his first visit to Taizé in France, in 1973, when he had been amazed and touched to hear the brothers in that remote village praying for Korea. That had been the time of the Yushin crisis, when the Cardinal was a leading figure in the resistance to the merciless dictatorship that was denying Koreans any kind of democratic freedom. In 1977 many members of the Catholic Church, together with Protestants and Buddhists, were also being arrested, beaten and torured for demanding basic rights for Korea’s workers. We knew that the Cardinal was doing everything that he could to support them, and was suffering from having so little impact on an increasingly inhuman regime.

    After midday prayer in that Hong Kong shack, the Cardinal stayed with us for a very simple lunch and I suddenly heard him ask Brother Roger to send brothers to Korea, “to help the young people deepen their faith.” I was therefore more than happy when, in May 1980, I arrived in Seoul to join other brothers in response to that invitation. By that time, the name of the dictator had changed, but nothing else was different and more than once, while visiting Cardinal Kim, we saw him comforting the families of the people in prison, the political prisoners, some of them condemned to death for their defence of basic human rights.
His deepest concern was for the poor people; he was always eager to spend time with them and with people helping them. He was keenly aware that the courage and strength needed to serve the poor without being discouraged could only come from prayer, he was a man of deep spirituality at the same time as he was keenly aware of social issues.

    In the 1980s, as Korea slowly emerged from the dark clouds, the Cardinal was twice able to welcome Pope John-Paul II to Korea. The first visit, in 1984, marked the 200th anniversary of the foundation of he Catholic Church in Korea with the canonization of the 103 martyr-saints. The second, in 1989, was for the World Eucharistic Congress. By his visits the pope encouraged the Cardinal and all who were inspired by him. In Korea, the Cardinal’s message was a source of strength and hope for many, the Catholic Church grew enormously while he was at its head.

I shall never forget listening to his sermons in Myongdong Cathedral at certain moments of great tension and crisis, standing in the packed church. I could feel how carefully he was choosing his words in order to indicate clearly the challenging message of the Gospel, never proposing some kind of easy emotion that would have no effect. It was clear that he knew no compromises, that he spoke with same voice to the simplest believers and to the most powerful leaders.

    We all loved the Cardinal because he loved us. Often he would come for a celebration in communities that were serving the poor; especially he liked to celebrate his first Christmas Mass in some particularly meaningful place—a slum, an orphanage, a hospice for people with AIDS . . . When he was invited for special birthdays or anniversaries his words were invariably just right for the occasion, and always he made people laugh. One of his special gifts was his openness to the world outside of Korea. He had studied in Japan and Germany, he spoke German, English, French and Italian as well as Japanese. He often went to other Asian countries and knew well the challenges facing the Church in each of them. He was always glad to meet visitors from abroad who were passing through Korea, he was eager to listen to them, to share their vision.

    The Cardinal was called to an impossible task, to be a symbol of hope and Gospel light for the whole nation through one of the darkest periods of its history. There were times when I think he longed to be relieved of that responsibility, when he had the impression that he was not being understood. Now he is truly at rest, the rest promised to a true and faithful servant of Christ, eternal life.

(Tribute published in The Korea Times, February 18, 2009)