Columban Vocation: My Dream of Priesthood

Sarah Mac Donald speaks to Columban seminarian Laurencio Woobin Lee about his call to missionary priesthood.

Thirty-two-year-old Laurencio Woobin Lee is sitting in the homely community room at St Columban’s in Dalgan Park (Ireland). He has taken some time off from his English classes to chat to the Far East magazine about his vocation story. Language studies are part of his preparation for a spiritual year in the Philippines.

Originally from Daejon in South Korea, he explains how important the Catholic faith was to his family. “On my Mum’s side of the family we are an old catholic family.” Both of his parents are still alive, and he has one younger brother.

Growing up, “I had a dream: to be a priest. I was involved in the parish when I was young. Every Saturday I went to the Children’s Mass. The priest was a really good man and seeing him at the altar, I wanted to be like him. So I began to dream about being a priest.”

His family respected his decision to pursue priesthood and so did his friends. He recalls being a poor student in school. “I didn’t like studying – I really liked freedom and having fun.” His decision to become a priest saw him change, and his friends noticed that. “I also respected them because being a lay person and being married has a lot of challenges.”

Laurencio joined the diocesan seminary in Daejeon in 2009. Over the next four years, he studied for priesthood and also did his military service (2011-2012). Military service is mandatory in South Korea. All able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 28 are conscripted into the armed forces for up to 18 months.

But by 2013, he no longer felt that the seminary was his path. “Military service was difficult for me. I was attached to the artillery corps and worked on cannon duty in 2011. But the chaplain needed an assistant and he chose me. I had no option and had to agree.” He politely hints that he was unimpressed with the chaplain’s attitude towards the military hierarchy, clearly favouring the officers over the ranks. “I was very disappointed,” he admits.

“After I came out of the seminary I tried to find another job.” His family understood his decision but were “very worried” for him because in Korea leaving the seminary is seen by some as “a failure”. He began to think about becoming a police officer. “But I never forgot about priesthood.”

In fact, he had begun to think about mission while in the seminary. “In the diocesan seminary we had the first Mongolian seminarian studying to be a priest. One professor told him he was a ‘Mongolian Kim Daejon Andrew’ – the first Korean-born Catholic priest, who is patron saint of Korean clergy. I was very curious about Mongolia and I started to think about mission and missionaries. The Mongolian seminarian really seemed Korean, he spoke the language really well and even joked well in Korean with the other seminarians. I became curious about missionaries because there are many foreign priests, nuns and missionaries in Korea.”

However, having left the diocesan seminary, he had to find a new path. He took the national test for the police, but that idea was undermined by the political context in which the then president Park Geun-hye was impeached. The police handled the protests over corruption badly, attacking protestors with water cannons and even firing on demonstrators.

“I very disappointed by their behaviour and so the idea of becoming a policemen ended.” He had seen that many seminarians, nuns and priests had taken part in the protests and had experienced the heavy-handed police tactics. That was when he began to seek out information on religious congregations to try and understand if missionary priesthood was his calling. “I think it was God’s will that I did not become a policeman.”

Laurencio had been impressed by Columban Fr Seo Kyunghi Stefano who served as a deacon in the Cathedral in Daejon diocese. In 2017 he contacted Columban Fr Joseph Kang who is now on the Columban general council in Hong Kong but was then working in Korea. “I told him that I wanted to join the Missionary Society of St Columban.” He did that in 2019. “Before I entered the Columbans I discussed it with my family and they really encouraged me.”

Laurencio explains how his first year of studies with the Columbans was spent getting to know the Society and what its priests, sisters and lay missionaries do, and the role played by Columban missionaries in Korea, and other countries such as the Philippines, Pakistan and Myanmar. The second year was spent discerning why he chose the Columbans. His supervisors, Fr Donal O’Keeffe and Fr Jude Genovia, were a good help to him in this. During his third year of studies he was “really impressed” to learn about Fr Young-In (Gregorio) Kim’s work in Peru. “He is on the regional council in Korea and is very passionate about mission. As my rector we discussed mission many times.”

Due to the Covid pandemic, his spiritual year in the Philippines had to be postponed. Speaking ahead of his departure for Manila, he described himself as “feeling really excited about the Philippines because I want to try and understand the culture of another country. The Columbans are an intercultural and a multicultural Society.”

Please pray for all our Columban seminarians who are on the journey to become missionary priests. Please pray for vocations.

Sarah Mac Donald is Editor of the Far East magazine.

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This article was first published in the July/August 2023 issue of the Far East magazine. To subscribe see: Just €10 for a digital subscription and €20 for a print subscription – these will help us fund our mission projects and our seminarians.