A quest for social development in Timor-Leste

Korean priest Father Hwang Seok-mo has served in the small, predominantly Catholic country for more than seven years

Father Hwang Seok-mo, a member of the Clerical Congregation of Blessed Korean Martyrs, is a missionary in Timor-Leste and known as a versatile priest for his skills as an educator, mechanic, nurse and architect. (Photo: CPBC)

Posted: Oct 11, 2022 09:25 GMT

Updated: October 11, 2022 at 10:44 GMT

In 2015, when Father Hwang Seok-mo finished his term as director of his religious order’s headquarters in Seoul, he asked the superior to send him as a missionary to Timor-Leste.

The 57-year-old priest, a member of the South Korea-based Clerical Congregation of Blessed Korean Martyrs, said the small, predominantly Catholic country, also known as East Timor, had come to his attention as “fertile land”. to cultivate the spirit and spirituality of the congregation.

“East Timor caught my attention. It was an area that was planned to contribute to the Asian region with the spirit and spirituality of the Clerical Congregation of Blessed Korean Martyrs and to develop vocations,” Father Hwang told the Catholic Peace Broadcasting Corporation of Korea ( CPBC).

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Since arriving in Timor-Leste, Father Hwang has overseen the monastery of Sebastiao Gomes and serves some 8,000 Catholics in the parish of Aileu in the region of Alieu Requidoe, about 1,500 meters above sea level.

The priest says he has followed in the footsteps of the order’s patron, Saint Andrew Kim Tae-gon, in spreading the Good News and making social development efforts through education in the Southeast Asian nation. East.

Development groups say education and development are crucial for Timor-Leste, which gained independence from Indonesia after a bloody war 20 years ago but remains one of the poorest countries despite its wealth of natural resources.

According to the United Nations Development Programme, around 42% of the country’s approximately 1.3 million people live below the poverty line. UN data from 2018 showed that around 32% of the population is illiterate.

Father Hwang says his congregation’s mission here is to create an educational environment for children to meet people’s needs.

Last year, the order established Saint Mary’s High School in Carmel, which includes an office, auditorium, girls’ dormitory and computer lab, among other facilities.

The school received funds from papal charities and missionary organizations for the building project.

“The congregation works here with the belief that the most important thing is to create an educational environment for children,” Fr. Hwang said.

He also added that “the mission is to respond immediately to their difficulties and requests, and when they desperately need help”.

“I am happy to always respond to their requests and to live together.”

Timor-Leste has an area of ​​about 15,000 square kilometers, making it even smaller than South Korea’s Gangwon Province, which is about 16,875 square kilometers.

Although it is a small country, over 90% of the population is Catholic whose religious beliefs are preserved in combination with traditional culture.

In the parish of Alieu, Father Hwang is highly regarded by local Catholics for his versatile skills. In addition to being a priest and educator, he is also a mechanic, nurse and architect who offers all kinds of assistance to people in need.

The priest oversaw a housing project implemented by his religious order to support the local poor and homeless.

“For those in need, the parish is even building a new house for $3,000 per household,” Father Hwang said.

He collaborates in missionary activities with the parish priest, Father Kim Min-jo, who is in charge of seven mission stations under the parish.

Father Hwang says proper spiritual and pastoral care helps the Church thrive over time. He noted that a mission center under the parish became a full parish church in 2019.

The priest says he is aware of people’s suffering during the civil war that led to Indonesia’s independence in 1999.

“There is a place where Holy Mass was celebrated for the first time in 24 years since the end of the civil war in 1999,” he said.

It is estimated that around 250,000 Timorese men, women and children lost their lives during the war when the Indonesian military and their collaborating militias unleashed a brutal crackdown on the independence movement in occupied East Timor.

The Korean missionary order does not stop after setting up a school and a housing project.

Missionaries raise funds for the construction of Saint Teresa College. The construction cost is estimated at 280 million Korean won ($198,075).

As construction progressed, local Catholics also lent their support by offering to work as laborers.

Father Hwang envisions a bright future for the children who will graduate from the schools built and run by the missionaries.

“The goal is not to build a small school and only award diplomas. I want to create a school that can instill real hopes and dreams in children, and change society with those dreams,” he said.

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Joel C. Hicks