Please find below the translation of an interview with WUCWO Board Member Helen Kwon Kyung Soo, which was presented in Catholic Peace Press.
Meeting with Catholics in Leadership Position
Dr Helen Kyung Soo Kwon – Professor Emeritus, Ewha Womans University
“In my on-going service of the poor I wish to be become the tabernacle of the Lord”
I have just meet with Dr Helen Kyung Soo Kwon, Emeritus professor of Ewha Womans University and a leader in the global Church. She taught English Literature for thirty years and is presently a member of the executive board of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations (WUCWO). Her humble but enthusiastic “yes” to the call of God and the Church has shaped her life: a journey of awakening to both the realities of violence and discrimination against women but also to the integrity and value of all human life. As a member of WUCWO she has been involved with Catholic women from around the world in their care for woman and children who are victims of war and violence. In its advocacy work, WUCWO engages with both governments around the world and U.N. agencies. Dr Kwon is woman that never forgets that all service is, from start to finish, a prayer. Her vision of church is of an institution which gently embraces women who are not just mothers but also devoted workers in their faith communities. The purity of her first experience of God’s call remains as she prays for Church which fervently serves the poor. Now let us look more deeply into the courageous but humble response of this women whose faith rests in God’s joyful invitation to all women to share in the Divine reign.
▶Presently you are a board member of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organisations (WUCWO).
There are 27 board members coming from the five continents. Each country nominates one from amongst its number who is an active leader in the both pastoral service and evangelization. I was nominated by the Catholic Women’s Federation of Korea and subsequently elected onto the Board. I was first elected in 2010 and continue in that position until the present moment. This year, WUCWO marks its 107th year as a Vatican ratified organization. WUCWO seeks to enable Catholic women to accept their responsibilities for Mission by actively participating in human development.
▶ This year, what event is being held by WUCWO?
This year we host our General Assembly. Held quadrennially, the Assembly elects a new board and chooses a thematic focus for the following four years. The theme for the last four years (2014 – 2018) was “Hope in action in the service of family, youth, and the suffering of the world”. This theme gave focus to multiple activities including advocating for the human rights and protection of women subjected to human trafficking, and assistance to single mothers and their children. Other initiatives included the active engagement and support for drug and alcohol prevention initiatives as well as promoting the right to access safe, potable water and sanitation – the latter, a particular focus for Africa. The Assembly also paid attention to the special circumstances and struggles of women in the Middle East. General Assembly In 2018, the topic is
Carriers of “Living Water ” to a world which thirsts peace.
▶What was it like to be a collaborator to the special secretary at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family held in 2014?
I was a collaborator with the special secretary’s office which supported the World Synod of Bishops hosted at the Vatican. The task of the secretariat was to collate and distribute the huge number of documents and materials which was produced every day during the Synod over the course of discussions. Indeed, there was an exhausting amount of written material to be read and studied by the participants. The meeting was wonderful in that the participants were both respectful and attentive despite there sometimes being quite heated debate while dealing with some challenging issues.
▶ There is a suffering Church, and within that Church women are those who suffer the most.
The WUCWO leadership is constantly in discussion and dialogue about ways to support women who are victims of family violence. Moreover, WUCWO’s members around the world are not just raising their voices but also embracing these women. We push the issue at international fora, including urgent appeals made directly to the UN. Our priority is to both prevent the breakdown of the family unit and to protect children who are all too often the innocent victims of violence, war and sexual abuse. From my perspective, materially and legally helping these families and their children is not just essential but a moral imperative arising out of our prayer and defining our service.
▶In 2016, Pope Francis created a theological commission to investigate the issue of women deacons.
From the perspective of Catholic history, tradition, and liturgy, I think the Pope has demonstrated a tremendous amount of courage in taking this initiative. Given that gender equality has been seen differently within the Church, I think the Pope is opening up the possibility of a revolution in the Church’s future. We must pray that God will give the Pope with wisdom.
▶Many younger women criticize the Catholic Church as being too conservative.
There is substantial movement in contemporary society towards gender equality. These days woman are active and dynamic actors in the public sphere. They are not afraid of challenge and comfortable with rapid change. On the other hand, it seems to me that the Church has been very slow to adapt. I think it is very important for younger women to participate in the discernment about what degree of societal change the Church should embrace.
▶ You were very involved in the prolife movement when you were the president of the Catholic Women’s Federation of Korea. You especially made a strong stand against abortion.
I believe that the defence of life is the basis of all movements. Life is God’s gift to us. The Book of Genesis asserts that we are made in the image and likeness of God. As a result, life is sacred, and no one has the right to reject it. This is especially true for women who, as mothers rearing
children, have the great honour of motherhood and whose sacrifice is an incredible contribution to society. Motherhood can be seen in a similar light to Jesus coming to save all people. Pope John Paul II spoke of the “Gospel of Life,” which means that no one has the right to use abortion to throw away life.
▶What can the Church do so that women can protect life?
I believe our Church must become more warm and supportive of women involved in service to the prolife movement. Pope Francis talks about a listening Church whose doors are always open. In giving birth and caring for children, women are at the service of the Kingdom of God. Consequently, I believe the Church must both gently embrace and give courage to alienated women and those outside the Church who are suffering.
▶You are a member of the Knights of Malta.
The Knights of Malta, which was established in Korea in 2015, is a lay organization dedicated to both defending the faith and serving the poor. Within the Church. we make a permanent promise to serve until our deaths by warmly supporting the needy and actively seeking out those who have been forgotten. We provide food for lonely older people and seek to be their companions. The Knights carry a special responsibility to comfort and care for the sick.
▶There must be many things you wish to thank God for over your 30 years as a university professor.
It was always my dream to be a teacher. I guess it was the impact of my father who constantly emphasised that we must share what we have learnt. I have always relied on God. My prayer has always been: “Dear Lord, as a believer please give me courage and wisdom because without you I have nothing to offer. Please give me an opportunity to share your word with my students.”
▶ Your parents were devout and committed Catholics. You seem to have inherited your faith from them.
My parents were assiduous in their commitment to our education in the faith. We always started our Sundays with prayer. During my university years I was a Sunday school teacher and always tried to encourage my students to have dreams by reading many books to them. I also emphasised that it was important to become people who put their neighbours before themselves, sharing all they have. My parents taught me that through faith comes wisdom for life and, with faith at the centre of my life, the courage to live well. My father, who believed that “great faith is like discovering a pearl of great price,” first encouraged me to participate in the Crusillo movement. In 1972, I was Crusillo’s first female president and held that position for over 30 programmes.
▶ Your baptismal name is Helen: What attributes of this saint do you try to emulate?
Saint Helena was the mother of the Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Emperor. Having herself converted, she was influential in her son’s conversion to Christianity. Even though her husband rejected her,
she was always humble and bore her burdens with great grace. She completed a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, a journey by foot of 7800kms, where she is credited with finding the true cross of Jesus. I seek to emulate her prayerful and patient constancy in following Jesus.
▶Is there anything you would like to say to parish lay leaders?
There is something rare and beautiful in women’s service within the Church. I invite my sisters in faith to offer their fears in prayer and be confident in the Lord as they seek to resolve challenges with wisdom and courage. I encourage awareness of our daily surrender to God as we live confident and grateful lives. As our Church ages, priests and laity alike need to join forces to encourage and nurture our youth as we really need their participation. Parish churches need to be creative and reflective places which challenge and support young people to be engaged in social issues.
▶What verse from the bible do you carry in your heart?
Those verses are “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the gentle, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy (Matt 5,3-10).” Just as Pope Francis says there are many within our orbit who need mercy. I believe that gentleness is the way to be close to these people. Gentleness, I believe, is to be found in those people who are able to take a step back and listen to the word of God quietly and humbly, no matter where they are and whatever they are doing.
▶In the future, is there something which you especially want to do?
I am especially proud of our local Church as it has grown and matured by remaining faithful to the glimpse of faith shown by our martyr saints. It is something I always desire to share with others when I attend international meetings. All the same, I find myself quietly reflecting on whether I can stand before God without embarrassment, having duly accepted my responsibilities as a Catholic believer. It is my hope that through my simple service I can always be as supportive as I can to my neighbours who are poor and suffering.
Adoration before the tabernacle has an important place in my faith practice. I feel a precious bliss in this kind of prayer. On a practical level, it is my hope to be able to donate tabernacles to poor church communities when they build new places of worship. More importantly, however, it is my desire to become a tabernacle of the Lord in order to nurture and nourish the mission and life of the Church.