Father Vincenzo Bordo is a missionary among the poor and the new poor in South Korea’s fast-growing economy. He says: “Two Jesus do not exist, i.e. a Jesus of the sacraments and a Jesus of the poor. The Church that celebrates the Eucharist is the same Church that serves the suffering Christ”
Father Vincenzo has grey hair and the face of a boy. Between 1 and 7 p.m. each day, he can be found dressed in a cook’s attire—as hygiene protocol requires—chopping vegetables, boiling rice and then distributing meals to his regular ‘costumers’—over 500 homeless people and new poor people in Suwon, in Seoul’s least swanky suburban area. He works with the help of a few volunteers and has been doing this for 23 years—but this is not “social work” or welfare activism. “I”, he says, “am a priest and everything I do, I do as a priest.” Vincenzo went to Korea from Italy, bursting with the generous motivation of a young missionary, a Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate (OMI). He loved Asia and wanted to be close to the people living on the urban margins. When he arrived, he chose a Korean name, Kim Ha Jong (“No one knows Vincenzo Bordo here”) and signed a declaration donating his organs, his way of telling everyone that he was there to stay and intended to serve the local people until the end, offering his whole self, including his organs, to the very end. He later came to realise that the dynamism of Christian life involved far greater surprises than his generous and boundless dedication.
What happened to him more or less happened to Thomas, the apostle who did not believe his other companions who announced Christ’s resurrection. “But the risen Christ,” Vincenzo repeated, “still carries His wounds. Thomas found faith when he touched Christ’s wounds. The same thing happens now. We touch the risen Christ in the Eucharist, in God’s word, in the sacraments but His wounds are still open. They are present wherever a person is suffering, wherever a person has been abandoned and left to cope alone. I have been touching the wounds of the risen Christ every day for the past 23 years. When I touch Christ’s wounds, faith is born anew within me, as it was in Thomas.”
For this reason, Vincenzo-Kim is not fond of the commonplace that distinguishes or even creates a contrast between the proclamation of the faith and service to the poor, the practise of the sacraments and works of mercy. “Two Jesus do not exist, i.e. a Jesus of the sacraments and a Jesus of the poor. The Church celebrates the Eucharist and those who are suffering are His wounds. The Church that celebrates the Eucharist is the same one that serves Christ through the poor. When I work for the homeless, feed those who are hungry, I encounter Christ. It is not me who brings Christ to them. It is me who encounters God who suffers in them. In the Gospel, Jesus Himself says: ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’. He did not say: you did it to the poor and you did a good job. He said: you did it to Me. He identified Himself with the poor. For me, standing before them is like standing before the tabernacle. It is worship.”
This is how the “House of Anna” was born in 1993. Here, besides the soup kitchen, the new poor of South Korea’s fast-growing economy also find clothes, a shower, a barber, a bed for the night and workshops for those who want to work: basic solutions for basic needs, which gives everyone the chance of a fresh start. A place where everything moves on as if by miracle, a miracle that is ongoing thanks to the help of benefactors and a network of 600 volunteers, some of whom are practising Catholics to a greater or lesser extent but include atheists, agnostics and Buddhists among them.
Vincenzo’s work has brought him into contact with a serious collective sense of unease that has not been picked up by the hyper-technological sensors of South Korean society. There are around 200 000 “street children” scattered across South Korea’s marginalised urban areas—an entire city of new “invisibles”—and many others who have “failed”, the “losers”, generational scraps that are flushed out of the cracks of stifling social competition. Three times a week, Fr Vincenzo packs a tent and ventures into no man’s land in a mini bus. He goes into the streets where young people gather, surrounded by crime, gambling and violence. There the Church really is a “field hospital”, not just in words but in deeds.
Many of the young people are under 15; they prostitute themselves, steal and are beaten. They remind Fr Vincenzo of Ishmael, the son Abraham had with his slave Agar, who was then sent away from the home with his mother, after Isaac was born. In the desert, Agar, who had run out of water, abandoned her son so that she wouldn’t see him die. God heard the child’s cry. “The Almighty God, the Saint of saints was overcome by emotion”, said Vincenzo. “He listened to the faint cries of a child in the desert—the same cries of the children in these streets. God suffers at the sight of them because they are His children.”