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Daejeon – He is the first Korean bishop in the Roman Curia: Lazarus You Heung-sik, 69, was appointed Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy by Pope Francis.
He was ordained a priest for the diocese of Daejeon, and became coadjutor in the same diocese in 2003 and took full responsibility two years later. The new Prefect was at the head of the Peace Committee of the Korean Bishops’ Conference and went to North Korea four times. Keeping in mind prayer and the hope of peace and reconciliation on the Korean peninsula, he gave the following interview to Agenzia Fides.
Your Excellency, with what sentiments did you welcome your appointment as Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy?
The appointment was really unexpected for me. When the Pope communicated his will to me, in my prayer and reflection, I humanly felt a certain inadequacy in taking on such an important task. However, as I continued praying, I perceived that gradually in my heart the voice increased that God’s love and mercy were certainly greater than my imperfection. Above all, Saint Andrew Kim Taegon and many other Korean martyrs came to mind, who always said “Yes” to the will of God and the Church without any hesitation, loving God and one’s neighbor to the end. Therefore, asking for their intercession, I joyfully said my “yes” to God through the Holy Father. From that moment, until the publication, I entrusted, confident in the infinite love of the Lord, all that I have achieved as a priest and bishop to the mercy of God; I thanked the Lord for “what happened in the relationship between him and me”. Even the time of the spiritual exercises focused on “knowing how to let go”, helped me to realize, in the light of faith, what the Lord was asking of me, and I believe that this abandonment to the will of God and following him wherever he calls us, is the indispensable modus vivendi for Christ’s disciples. During those exercises I experienced in God’s grace that his mercy is much greater than my weakness. Now I am carving the words of Christ in my heart: “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God” , to prepare me for the new mission for which the Church called me.
The universal Church needs priests and “holy priests”: what will be the criteria with which you will carry out your work in the Holy See?
I studied in Rome and I know the situation of priests in Korea and also in Asia in general. But in order to better know the situation of the priests who give their service in the world, I will try, in particular, to do my best to listen patiently and respectfully to their voice, welcoming their anxieties and their desires. I agree with the thought of many faithful who argue: “Without the renewal of priests, there is no renewal of the Church”. The holy priests renew the Church, and show the most beautiful face of her. As we all know well, it is very important to form priests who know how to bend over the human pain of so many brothers, willing to wash one another’s feet and who live fraternal love like the Good Samaritan, just as the Holy Father emphasized in his wonderful Encyclical Letter “Fratelli Tutti”. Such good priests do not come out of nowhere: here is the need to continue on a serious path of constant ongoing formation, which helps them to live their pastoral ministry serenely, face the challenges of the world with courage, and above all rediscover the precious value of fraternal love that they can experience with their confreres. It is also a vocation for me to live fraternal love among priests, forming a priestly family with them. Priestly celibacy, which we have all accepted as a gift from the Father, does not require us to live our ministry as orphans, but we know that we are happily integrated into a large family, the priestly one, where one can experience friendship and communion. The words that Pope Francis often addresses to priests and seminarians, whom I listen to willingly, have always renewed and edified me, reminding me that my main task to be a “good Shepherd” and to do my best to strive to live my ministry, in communion with all the others. In fact, I believe that it is an important aspect to be able to give future priests the possibility of also living a formative experience together with men and women religious, as well as with the lay faithful. The Church is a family, therefore in our journey from a synodal perspective, such a possibility will certainly guarantee mature future priests and, why not, also saints.
What does the first Korean Bishop at the head of a Dicastery of the Roman Curia mean? What specific contribution can you make?
I believe it is the call of all bishops, successors of the Apostles, to take direct responsibility for the Diocese on the one hand and for the Universal Church on the other. The Holy Father, recognizing that the Holy Korean Martyrs lived a life consistent with their faith, that is, evangelized by living fraternal love, in a concrete and exemplary way, as a child of this blessed land, fertilized by their blood, called me to collaborate closely, to spread their witness of heroic faith in today’s world.
I am aware that it is an arduous and highly responsible task to assist the Holy Father in this special Dicastery, which wishes to offer attention and particular care to the priests, deacons and seminarians of the world. Trusting in the help of the Holy Spirit and in profound communion with Pope Francis, I feel the deep desire to love, serve and encourage them; therefore, I will do my best to live as a disciple of the Lord, enlightened above all by the logic of the Gospel, which prompts me to be a brother and friend of priests. I was so encouraged by the message of good wishes that a Bishop friend sent me in these days: “Lazarus, congratulations on your appointment as Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy. I would just like to remind you that if there is a sad priest, you will be responsible”. My hope is that all priests live with joy, zealously serving the People of God, especially the marginalized and the poor.
Do you hope and think that a trip by the Pope to North Korea is possible? Do you think you can make a contribution in this sense?
Last October 2018, when the President of the Republic of Korea, Moon Jae-in was received by Pope Francis in audience, he sent the Pope an invitation from Kim Jong-un, leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, for a possible apostolic journey to that nation. The Pope then replied that he was available to visit North Korea when he would receive a formal invitation from the Pyongyang authorities. In those days I was participating in the Synod of Bishops on the theme of young people and, when I learned the news of the Holy Father’s availability, I was really moved. Since then, I have constantly prayed for the Pope’s visit to North Korea. Nearly ten million Koreans live in forced separation due to the division between South and North.
The confrontation that exists on the Korean Peninsula is one of the greatest sufferings of humanity today. It should be noted that the area which is called the “Demilitarized Zone” between the South and the North is ironically the most militarized zone in the world.
I am convinced that a possible visit to Pyongyang could represent a turning point, which will allow us Koreans to dialogue and understand each other better, starting with small things and ending with big ones, and maybe even reaching the reunification of the South and the North. In concrete terms, the Holy Father’s mediation could be a propitious opportunity to put an end to the conflict, the result of the mutual distrust between the two parts of the Peninsula which has been prolonged for too many decades.
For my part, I pray and try to do what I can, in the hope of seeing the opening of at least a small window to be able to understand each other, overcoming the current situation of tension and opposition. Humanly there seems to be little hope, but since God is omnipotent, I try, by praying to Him, to welcome all that can be useful for the promotion of peace. In taking on the new mission in the Church, if I can give my support for the restoration of peace in the Korean Peninsula, I will do so willingly.