I Revered Fr John Smyth

Oct 13, 2023

Columban Fr John Smyth died earlier this year. A younger Columban, Fr Kwon Taemoon, recalls the influence the Irish missionary had on him – “he was like a real grandfather to me” – and his long service to the Korean faithful.

Fr John Smyth became the parish priest of Tobong-dong in Seoul in 1985. I recall that he was not very tall, that he had penetrating eyes and was a man of few words. A few years later, one day after mass when I was a middle school student, Fr John asked me if I could play table tennis. I confidently said, “Yes I can” and for almost two years after that we played competitively twice a week.

At the time I was shocked. I came to realise that he was extremely competitive and that his character was such that he could not live with being defeated. While I was no match for him there was no way that he would take pity on me and let me win a game.

The six Columban missionaries who went to Korea in 1963: Frs Brian Oxley, John Smyth, John Hogan, Hugh McMahon, Joseph Cahill, (Gerry Marinan – first group of priests who went to Korea) and Gerry French.

But as we competed every week I rapidly improved with the result that I sometimes beat him. I have fond memories of expressing my excitement as I watched his exasperated face each time I beat him.

As the number of believers in the parish increased Fr John started to build a new church devoting all his energy into doing so. He used the underground space as the priest’s house thus sparing his living costs while contributing everything he possessed into the building fund.

He did not spend any time enjoying the comforts of the new church but rather as soon as it was completed he went to America and began his ministry to the Korean Catholics that were living overseas.

Fr John celebrating Mass with Fr Kwon Taemoon – a former Sunday school student in Dobong parish when Fr John was pastor there, who joined the Columbans.

Time moved on and I entered the Columban Society and was studying at the Columban International Theological house of studies in Chicago. I renewed acquaintance with Fr Smyth who was the pastor of the Korean Martyrs church in Chicago.

With a shy smile he introduced me to his office which was in the boiler room explaining that it was the warmest place in the building. He never showed any sign of being annoyed with me frequently visiting him but rather he wanted us to have extended conversations which he was reluctant to bring to a closure.

He was like a real grandfather to me and I was always sorry when the time came for me to have to leave him. Fr Smyth and the Catholics of the Korean Martyrs helped me prepare for my ordination to diaconate both spiritually and materially. As my mission was far away in China after I left Chicago I never expected to meet him again even if I happened to return to America.

However I met him again in 2013 when I was sent to Chicago for further studies. He had grown much older and was preparing to leave the Korean Martyrs church after serving there for some twenty years. I helped him prepare to move to the Korean parish in Los Angeles by organizing his things. Among the items I found were socks and underwear that had been donated to him by his parishioners but he had never worn.

He wore old worn out clothes and socks with holes in them. “Father, I said can you not get rid of the old stuff and wear these new clothes” but he refused saying “I find these old clothes are really comfortable”. He had a cassette radio from the 1980s he wanted to send by post but I said buying a new one would actually work out costing less but his answer was “Look, I’m not a person that enjoys spending time shopping”.

In 2018 having spent my time in my mission country I met Fr Smyth who was then ministering in the Los Angeles Korean church when I went to America to attend a great Columban Event.

The topic of our conversations was the Catholics in Tobong-dong and the Korean Martyrs parishes. His greatest desire seemed to be to meet them all again. That was my last meeting with him and when he went to his native Ireland last year I contacted him frequently but he only acknowledged my messages but never replied to them.

Fr John and Fr Kwon Taemoon.

Later knowing that his death was approaching he appeared to cut off all communication and all alone he prepared himself for his death. I cried for a long time feeling totally helpless. I reckon that Fr John spent his final days being totally true to his own personality.

While he was not given to making flamboyant speeches nor did he possess great social skills he lived a life of humility, constancy and fidelity which were the greatest gifts he had received from God.

Fr John Smyth when he served in Seoul.

He shunned the values of worldly popularity and success preferring to live a life of service where “his right hand did not know what his left hand was doing” personally demonstrating humility and poverty.

While he had a heart warmer than others he refused to express it for the purpose of receiving special gifts or being liked by the Catholics but internally he lived a life of love and he is the Fr Smyth that I respect and revere.

Lord, do not allow me to entertain a heart of sadness but rather fill my heart with gratefulness and joy.
Lord God, I know my shortcomings and my lack of experience but do not allow them to have me lose confidence or to belittle the gifts of grace you bestow on me.
Let me not be discouraged believing that your gifts are too weak but rather let me live humbly and gratefully accepting them.
Let me live with a grateful heart for my family, the clergy and religious who helped me become a priest and continue to this day helping me in my priesthood.
Lord God, I pray for the believers and the good Samaritans who constantly assist us priests spiritually and materially and let me always remember their sacrifices.

*This is the prayer that the late Fr John Smyth recited every day.

This article was published in the 2023 Spring edition of the Korean Region Mission Magazine. Translated by Noel Mackey.

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