In a country where the Catholic Church shies away from appointing laypersons to positions of any form of pastoral authority, Michaella Cheon Jin-a is something of a fish out of water.
Father Pius Cho Jae-yeoun, parish priest at Muakjae Church in Seoul, appointed Cheon as pastoral coordinator in 2011 – an unorthodox and unprecedented move.
Unlike in the Philippines, which more commonly relies on the laity for certain pastoral functions, the Church in Korea prefers clerical or Religious appointments to such positions. However, pastoral needs in Korea outweigh available staff, says Fr Cho.
“There are lots of priests and nuns, and they are well trained as pastors. But they are often transferred to other parishes, which creates discontinuity in our ministry.”
Parish priests in Korea serve five-year postings before transferring to new locations. Assistant parish priests and parish nuns transfer every two years. Fr Cho says the quality of pastoral service often suffers when good pastors relocate and, in the absence of an assistant priest, he came up with an alternative plan.
When asked by the Archdiocese of Seoul to recruit additional office staff, he instead requested the hiring of a lay pastoral coordinator to ease the burden of an increasing workload. To his surprise, they agreed.
Cheon says her role is largely as a liaison between Fr Cho and his parishioners. “As the parish priest is always busy, it’s hard for him to meet all the parishioners. My role is to fill the gap by listening to and sharing their joy and hope, sorrow and concern,” she said.
Cheon also helps Fr Cho prepare pastoral activity plans and trains Sunday school teachers, youth leaders and adult volunteers. The work of a pastoral coordinator, she says, is all about building and fostering community.
“The core of pastoral activities is to make a community which enables people to make friendships beyond their age groups, work together and share their experiences,” she says. Cheon added that her years as a Sunday school teacher and her training as a lay pastor at the Hatsal Youth Ministry Institute, founded by Fr Cho, prepared her well for her new role in the parish.
Her fellow parishioners needed time to adjust to the unorthodox position she now holds, but they say they value her contributions.
“I don’t really understand all of what she does, but she makes us feel more closely linked with our parish priest,” said one of them.
Cheon admits that her role is challenging. “This job endlessly requires me to learn more, especially about theology. That is something that I need to improve on.”
She says she often gets confused while leading parish meetings over the application of the right theological view on particular issues – a problem she hopes to remedy by taking a theology course at a local seminary.
Cheon also worries about the future of her position, as it is largely dependent on the presence of Fr Cho, who will eventually be transferred to a new parish. “Actually, I feel rather nervous about this, and it’s a pity that the Church has made no guarantees about continuing my work,” she says.
Fr Cho says he will be transferred in September next year but sees the role of pastoral coordinator as “a pastoral partner for the parish priest and an effective model for the use of parish resources.”
He adds: “It also provides an opportunity for educated and devoted young laypersons to work in the Church.”
However, not all his fellow priests agree. “Pastoral activities are the work of priests. The pastoral coordinator seems to be more like a secretary to the priest. Generally, parish priests don’t need this,” said one parish priest who asked not to be identified.
An official at the Archdiocese of Seoul said Cheon’s position in Muakjae parish is a test case. So far, there is no plan to formally introduce such a job in the archdiocese.
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