ASIA/MONGOLIA - Premature death of a Korean fidei donum priest, an example of missionary passion, humility and poverty

Friday, 26 May 2023

Ulaanbaatar (Agenzia Fides) - There are missionaries who leave an indelible mark both in the community where they carried out their apostolic service and in the community of origin, which "brought them to faith" and accompanied them on their path of formation. This is the case of Father Stephen Kim Seong-Hyeon, priest of the clergy of Daejeon (diocese in South Korea), who died today, May 26, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, where he spent almost all his life as a priest, since his priestly ordination. Born in 1968, Father Stephen came to know Christ in his community and listened to his call, and was ordained in 1998. An ardent desire for mission ad gentes quickly arose in him and - abandoning a life situation which, for priests in Korea, is normally a situation of well-being and high social esteem - he left as a fidei donum missionary for the Diocese of Daejeon in Mongolia in 2000.
This is how one of his confreres from Dajeon, Father Augustin Han, who currently works in the Dicastery of Evangelization, remembers him: "I met Father Kim for the first time during a missionary experience in Mongolia in 2007, when I was a seminarian. I was very impressed to see Father Kim live with such missionary passion, such humility and such poverty. I saw in him the example of an authentic missionary priest who devoted himself completely to bringing the Gospel of the Lord to a people who had suffered from state-imposed atheism for decades".
At that time, Father Stephen ran a small Seminary in his parish which offered room and board to Mongolian boys, a place where the vocations of the first indigenous priests were born. "In a society where domestic violence is common, it was initially difficult for Mongolian boys to approach Father Kim because he was a grown man. However, he treated Mongolian boys with great fatherly love and they were impressed by his kindness. After experiencing his love and patience, the boys followed him and saw him as a true father. I was moved to see all this", continues Father Han.
Father Stephen Kim liked to recount his missionary experience: "When he arrived in Mongolia as a missionary, he did not fail to carry out works of alms and charity towards the poor. He was surprised to find that the poor could distinguish if he gave them something precious or superfluous. True sharing, he said, does not consist in giving what remains, what is superfluous, but in giving to the poor what is precious to you, just as God sent his only Son into the world".
Father Stephen always had the book of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux open on his desk, a constant source of inspiration for his mission. "He managed to live the life of a priest, in this difficult country of Mongolia, without neglecting the spiritual life, alongside the many and urgent pastoral and social responsibilities", notes Father Augustin.
The priest was also a member of the Association of Priests of the Prado Institute for the Province of Korea, made up of priests who are committed to making themselves available to the Bishops to serve in the poorest parishes. In 2019 he was invited to participate in an Easter retreat for priests of the Prado in Fatima, Portugal. There he was able to share his missionary experience which was an example and an edification for all. He said, for example, that while he was still learning Mongolian, he had the opportunity to take a long bus ride. A child on the bus took an interest in him and the priest replied in his broken Mongolian. The child, who had been silent until then, then realized that he was a foreigner who did not speak Mongolian and continued to talk to him, teaching him various terms in Mongolian. Later, when the bus arrived at its destination, they became friends. This experience made him understand that "God uses weakness, our faults and poverty to spread the Gospel. The important thing is to be docile in his hands".
As a parish priest, he noticed that many boys in the parish drifted away from the church as they grew older and married. One day, he decided to go to one of them. He made an appointment with him, arrived, but the young man had not yet returned from work. Only his wife and a toddler were there. The young man did not arrive home until after 9 p.m. late, he apologized, washed his sweaty face and sat down opposite him. Seeing his tired and troubled face, he could not ask him to come to church. Back home, he thought long and hard about "what it means to be a missionary" and came to this conclusion: "As much as I want to be like the local people and live as poor as them, I always have a rectory I can go back to, a diocese I can go back to when life gets tougher, a hospital I can go to for treatment. But this boy now has to sweat and work all day to support his family and his home".
It was in this spirit that Father Stephen, after gaining the bishop's approval, left the parish and chose an itinerant life in the vast grasslands of Mongolia. He lived there for a few years in a "gher", the traditional Mongolian tent, and taught Korean to young students in a school. Later, called by the new bishop, he returned to Ulaanbaatar to serve as assistant vicar of the apostolic prefecture. However, he often liked to say, "When this mission is over, I will return to the prairies". Father Augustin concludes: "It was a joy for me to know him and share his spirituality. Today, Father Stephen is interceding with the Father for the small Church of Mongolia".(PA) (Agenzia Fides, 26/5/2023)