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The InterVIEW

First deaf Asian priest a sign of hope

A regular feature of The Catholic New World, The InterVIEW is an in-depth conversation with a person whose words, actions or ideas affect today's Catholic. It may be affirming of faith or confrontational. But it will always be stimulating.

Father Benedict Min-Sao Park became the first deaf Asian priest when he was ordained in Seoul July 6 last year. His ordination was the culmination of years of study — including 10 years in the United States — and work to overcome the idea that a deaf man could not become a priest. Park, 39, and Father Michael Soon-O Cheong, a hearing priest who is his friend and traveling companion, visited the United States in January to thank the people who supported him and prayed for his ordination. Park, who became deaf at age 2 as a result of a reaction to a vaccination, serves a congregation of about 200 deaf people in Seoul. He spoke with assistant editor Michelle Martin with sign language interpretation by Father Joseph Mulcrone of the archdiocese’s Office for the Deaf.

Catholic New World: What languages do you communicate in? Father Benedict Min-Sao Park:Well, I know really four languages. First is the Korean language to read and write. I know Korean Sign Language. Third, I know how to read and write English and fourth, I use American Sign Language. Four languages.

CNW: What gift do you bring to the deaf community that a signing, hearing priest couldn’t?

Park: A hearing priest can learn sign language, and he can meet the deaf people, he can communicate with them, but the depth of understanding — can he ever understand that experience totally? No. There will always be some lack of understanding or appreciation of experience. A deaf priest in this ministry is communicating at their level, whether it’s the Bible, whether it’s the sacraments, there’s an enthusiasm to join with that community — I’m deaf, they’re deaf — the communication is more normal.

CNW: Was the journey to ordination difficult for you?

Park: In Korea, the church didn’t accept me. I wanted to study at the seminary, but the church in Korea said no. ... So I went to Gallaudet University, which is in Washington, D.C., and I went to the seminary after that. I studied altogether 10 years here. When school was finished, that was 2004, I went back to Korea. Was I ready? The bishop said, let’s wait. I’m not going to ordain you quickly. I had to travel around the diocese, meet the seminarians. The bishop sent me to the diocesan seminary in Seoul. I lived there with the hearing seminarians. Luckily, a few of them knew sign language. I did that for three years. The bishop asked the seminary, he asked the administrators, he asked the professors, can Father Benedict do this? Is it possible? Can he do this? And they all said “yes, he can.” The decision was made to give me holy orders. I was very relieved.

CNW: Did you think that after all of the study, they might say no?

Park: I did think about that many times. I had to trust. The future at first seemed very vague and cloudy. I really struggled. Sometimes I would get depressed, I would get down. I would cry. Should I persist or quit? But Father Michael (Soon O-Chong) — I sent him an e-mail and I explained the situation to him. He answered me, I’m not going to force you. It’s your decision. But this is important to God. Pray about this. So I decided I had to persist in trying to become a priest, to continue my study no matter what and overcome the difficulties I faced.

CNW: When did you know that God was calling you?

Park: I was about 17. I was at the deaf school, and most of the students were Protestant. They actually had a deaf pastor at the Protestant church — I would say over 50 deaf pastors in Korea and they sign extremely well, very skilled.

The deaf are fascinated with that, inspired by that, and they believe in Jesus Christ because of that. The Catholic Church, they don’t know deaf priests. Hearing priests would speak, and there would be an interpreter at the service. But often they wouldn’t understand. People weren’t happy with that. Deaf Catholic people didn’t seem very happy. Deaf Protestant people, oh, they were happy and excited, with a positive attitude. I thought about quitting the Catholic Church and converting. But I said, no, I’m going to keep praying. I felt that God was calling me to become a priest. That was really a surprise for me. God? Saying why not you? Me? No, not me. I didn’t feel I was that smart. I didn’t feel I had the skills to do this. Still, that sense, that warmth started to grow in my heart. I resisted for some time, but God’s stubborn. God’s very stubborn, you know?

CNW: What did you think you would do, before God called you?

Park: I thought I’d be like a lot of deaf I went to school with. I’d finish school, save money, get married, have children, be a good dad, be a member of the deaf church and serve. I kind of thought it would be a simple life. I have some skills as an artist, so maybe I would use those.

CNW: Why do you think the church in Korea was reluctant?

Park: In Korea, the seminary has no program for deaf students. The Korean church didn’t know how to train somebody who was deaf to become a priest. They had no experience, so they didn’t know what to do. That’s really the reason the church said no.

CNW: Will it be easier for the next one?

Park: Well, Father Michael says he doesn’t know. There are two deaf men I know who want to become priests and we’ve discussed it with them. Will they be able to? I give that to God. It’s not dependent on me.

CNW: Where did you go to seminary in the United States?

Park: I studied ASL for one year. Then I was at Gallaudet for four years. Then I was at St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., and I studied with another deaf man for one year. Finally, [I] went to St. John’s University in New York City. There was a man named John Ruiz there, who was interested in the idea of deaf seminarians. We interviewed, and he talked with me in person, and Father Ruiz said St. John’s University will accept you and welcome you.