Fr Giancarlo Faldani and the international oasis of Seoul

Monday, 19 May 2008 08:41

The history of the last 50 years of the Church in Korea, and the contribution of the Franciscan mission. The challenges of economic development, globalisation, and the young.

Seoul (AsiaNews) - On the side of a hill not far from the river Han in Seoul, the Italian conventual Franciscans have constructed a centre for their Korean province, which also hosts the international parish.  It has become an oasis of life and of peace for hundreds of foreigners.  Since the year 2000, its pastor has been Fr Giancarlo Faldani (66), a missionary in Korea since 1969.  

Three years ago, he was named an honourary citizen of Seoul, an honour to which he attributes no importance.  "If anyone deserves credit", he says, "it is the Order, because of the activity it has established on behalf of the poor".  It nonetheless seems that the Italian embassy had a significant role in the granting of citizenship, wanting to express to the priest a sign of gratitude for the psychological help that he offers to so many of his countrymen.

But this figure is significant for a more substantial reason: the life of Fr Giancarlo is an icon of the missionary charism of the Italian Church, transplanted and grown in Korea.

Until a few years ago, the development of the conventual Franciscan order in the Korean peninsula was described, half seriously, as the adventure of the "three Faldanis": the other two, having already gone to their eternal reward, were his uncle Francesco, the pioneer, and his cousin Paolo.  All three were born and grew up in Cittadella, a town in the province of Padua.

Their lives, although rich in experiences and relationships, were so linear that they seemed to be the unfolding of a programme predetermined by the Order.  Not so.  In reality, the generous response to inspiration and "obedience" explains their success.

"The missionary vocation", says Fr Giancarlo, "preceded that of my entry into the convent.  I felt the desire to become a missionary for the first time at the age of five, when I saw my uncle leave for China.  It was then reinforced through the reading of missionary magazines that the pastor gave to us boys".  Of course, the formation that he received in the conventual Franciscan order was decisive in this process of maturation.

There was also an ecclesial reason behind his going to Korea.  Toward the end of the 1950's, hundreds of Korean Catholics who had fled from the north during the civil war (1950-1953) had taken refuge in the port city of Pusan.  The lack of priests drove Bishop John Choi to ask for personnel among the various foreign religious orders.  In 1958, the superior general of the conventual Franciscans responded to the call, because he had available two Korean seminarians who were about to be ordained priests in Japan.  But an older confrere had to be found to take responsibility for the small group.  The choice went to Fr Francesco, who after only five years had had to leave China because he was expelled by the communist government of Mao Tse-tung.

The beginning was very difficult, but the veteran missionary, with the help of two other conventuals, the priests Mario Fabrizi and Vittorio Di Nardo, offered by the province of Abruzzi (Italy), was able to lay the foundation for future development.

In 1969, with the arrival of Fr Giancarlo and Fr Antonio Di Francesco, the Italian conventuals were fully integrated into the culture of the country.  Vittorio, who had a talent for building, played a leading role in the preparation of the material environment.  The intuition of buying land on the side of the hill near the Han river was his. "That area", Giancarlo recounts, "was undervalued thirty years ago, because it had no means of communication.  Now a four-lane road passes in front of the convent, connecting the center of the capital to the highways". Fr Vittorio also became, so to speak, the "St Joseph" of the immense diocese of Seoul, because the curia entrusted the supervision of its building projects to him.

The missionary adventure of Giancarlo and of his Italian confreres took place during the period of incredible economic, political, social, and, above all, religious development in South Korea.  "In 1958", observes Giancarlo, "in (South) Korea there were no more than 800,000 Catholics.  Now there are almost 5 million.  More than half of these received baptism as adults".

In the context of the impressive growth of the Catholic Church in Korea, the conventual community has made a noteworthy contribution.  Above all, it too has grown.  The initial nucleus of the patriarch Francesco and of the two young Korean priests has developed into an institution that counts 50 priests and 7 brothers, and is present in the four main cities of the nation: Seoul, Pusan, Taegu, and Inchon.  The spirituality of the ancient religious orders is an especially valuable resource for the formation of Christian young people.  Fifty years ago, the Italian Church, by means of the three Faldanis of Cittadella and their confreres of Abruzzo, offered this to the young Church of Korea.

Only four Italian conventuals have remained: Fr Mario, who for decades has been involved in assistance for handicapped young people; Fr Antonio, a pillar in the formation of seminarians; Fr Vittorio, the "St Joseph" of convents, churches, and hospitals; and Fr Giancarlo, who is now the icon of the "recycling" of foreign missionaries in East Asia.  We will explain.  Over the past decades in Korea, immigrants have become fairly numerous, and many of them are Catholics.  For them, Sunday Mass is a source of life that permits them not only to survive in the cultural desert of Asia, but also to be a ferment of spiritual globalization.

In this new context, the presence of the foreign missionary is almost irreplaceable.  For cultural and linguistic reasons, Korean priests have difficulty providing this kind of religious assistance.  On Sunday, Fr Giancarlo Faldani becomes a servant of a community of about 500 foreign Catholics.  He considers his role not as "recycling", but as a gift of Providence, and he is happy with this.

by Pino Cazzaniga