Thursday, July 25, 2013

Myeongdong Cathedral

[More photos on Flickr.]

An oasis of quiet surrounds the oldest Gothic church building in Korea, located in the midst of the bustling Myeongdong neighborhood. There is construction for an expanded plaza going on in front, so the fences and walls block its view from the street. One approaches up some shallow steps that lead up a low hill. On either side, on the fence surrounding the construction side, are large billboards with photographs and a write up of the Cathedral's history.

The Cathedral is built on the spot where the first Korean Catholic community in Seoul gathered in the late 18th century. The story of the founding of the Church in Korea is fascinating.

It is a striking, red-brick building, the spire soaring up to the heavens. In the plaza there are people lounging about, talking quietly, reading, or just sitting. It's about 6 p.m. and not at all crowded. I push the side door to the Cathedral open. Mass is in progress. The faithful have just exchanged the sign of peace, and the Lamb of God is being recited. I slide along the back wall until I can see down the central aisle. The priest, in red vestments (the Feast of St. James) is at the tabernacle, retrieving the ciborium. The faithful start lining up to receive. I kneel, as the organ starts playing a familiar melody, and a solemn, yet lively song in Korean rises to the vaulted ceiling. There are at least 150 or so people at this 6:00 p.m. weekday Mass. A lady in a bright red dress emerges from some back corner, and mutters something loudly to herself and fiddles with her umbrella. It's a cloudy day outside, but no sign of rain. "Crazy lady," I immediately think. She shoves aside the brass post and rope that seals off the end of the nave (a sign in Korean saying, I'm guessing, something to the effect that no tours should take place during Mass) and heads up the aisle. A group of tourists clusters nervously in the back pew and one takes out a hymnal and peers at it. The hymn changes. All along the great pillars of the church are large TV screens and an electronic display with the number of the hymn, facing the side aisles.

It is so peaceful. I pray. After Mass is over, I go up the aisle and pray Vespers and sit in the quiet. Soon, people start gathering again for the 7:00 p.m. Mass.

I pick up a brochure from the rack at the back of the church, take a few photos and head outside. The entrance to the crypt is from the outside. The crypt chapel is divided into symmetrical geometrical sections by various retaining walls, giving it the feel of a maze, or something in Hogwarts. Behind the altar are the relics of the Korean martyrs. The tabernacle door has a built-in monstrance. Adoration! There are at least a dozen or more people scattered throughout. I find a corner and pray my rosary, praying especially for the intercession of Andrew Kim and his companions for seminarian friends of mine of Korean descent.

Panel with a photograph from 1896 showing the construction of the Cathedral
Outside, dusk is approaching. Behind the church building is a beautiful statue of Our Lady, a gift from France, for the 100th anniversary of the parish, in 1948. A bank of votive candles (covered by glass from the breeze and elements) shimmers.

As I head out down the stairs, a black official looking car is parked at the bottom of the stairs. I spot two clerics and a few others. I suspect one is the bishop, by the amount of bowing and deference the others are showing him. He gets into the car and it drives off.

I turn round the corner and head back into the sea of neon and noise. 

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