Very few people are aware that there is a convent in the middle of a crowded city, an unlikely place. Located in Jung-gu, Seoul, Society of the Holy Cross(Anglican Church of Korea) is surrounded by Korean traditional houses and Korean-style gardens. The Women's News met with Okatarina, the first nun to be ordained as a priest in the history of the Anglican Church of Korea.
The Anglican Church shares some theological and moral teachings with the Roman Catholic Church from which it separated in 1534. There are many clergywomen in the Roman Catholic Church. However, that is not the case in the Anglican Church. The first clergywoman was appointed in the Anglican Church of Hong Kong in 1944 during World War II. The Anglican Church of the U.S. followed suit in 1974. So did the Anglican Church of Great Britain in 1992 and that of Korea in the 2000s. Some criticized whether it is appropriate for a married clergywoman to celebrate the Eucharist when she gets pregnant. Okatarina counter-argued “The issue can be solved quite simply. Someone else can replace her during the Eucharist.”
“People say that women do not qualify as a priest because there have been men only. This is unconvincing. In 1992, the Anglican Church of Great Britain produced 1500th clergywoman. Since then, other countries like the U.S., New Zealand, and Australia have actively nurtured clergywoman. In some countries, women have a greater share and I think this is encouraging.”
Okatarina hoped that female believers as well as female priests would assume a wider range of roles. “Women in church are expected to get involved in beautification projects, wash clothes, and cook, while men handle administrative affairs. This is a form of discrimination which should change because there may be women who outperform men as an administrator. In a similar sense, there may be men who prefer participating in beautification projects over administrative job.”
She set her mind to become a nun ever since the 1960s when she was a freshwoman at the Department of English Literature and Linguistics, Sogang University. “My family and friends stopped me because they knew life as a nun would be tough.” Nevertheless, she had an unshakable belief that she should follow in the footsteps of Jesus to care for the underprivileged and share love.
“Everyone including priests dissuaded me from becoming a nun. They commented that I would be a good wife and that marriage is worth the effort. There was only one nun who supported me. I told her about my passion toward social welfare and she encouraged me to devote my life as a nun and realize my dreams.”
She signed an agreement for life after 10 years of service. Then she became eligible to attend general meetings and vote. As time passed, she became a devout nun.
When priests ran into conflict due to differences in values and opinions, she could not quite understand why. She thought ‘What is there to quarrel about when we all serve one God.’
One of controversial issues, however, was the habit. “The habit was just the same as that worn by the Medieval nuns. Many colleagues complained how the dress does not reflect changes of the times. During a general meeting, I suggested that we revise the clothes and people firmly disagreed on the grounds that the tradition should be upheld. But for about a decade, I continued to support my argument with diverse reasons and raised the issue repeatedly. I had a strong belief that a big change begins with a small change. And one day, the idea was finally accepted. We shortened our skirt to the ankle and improved the veil which used to cover half of our face (laughter).”
“Protestant Christians even talk to us into converting to Protestant Christianity.”
Okatarina has a profound interest in establishing peace among different religions. In 1999, she became a member of Samsohwe, an association of female religious leaders who dedicated themselves to world peace and religion unity. Club members from different religious backgrounds gather at a Buddhist sanctuary or church and pray for global peace and unity.
“There are many religious conflicts in Korea. On subway, you will notice that Protestant Christians would approach me and persuade me to believe in Jesus Christ, instead of worshipping Maria. They just don’t know about Catholic Church. I politely decline their offer and walk away. Just as this episode shows, Protestant Christians should reflect upon the way they spread words of God. People tend to build up prejudice against Christianity because of their misunderstanding. Broadly speaking, we have to check whether the way we serve God is appropriate or not.”
One of her concerns is that there is a decline in the number of young people who want to become monks and nuns. The U.S. and Europe are no exception. As part of solution, Okatarina decided to open convent gardens to the public during lunch following the Easter week.
“People feel a distance from monks and nuns because they think we are different. But the only difference is that we decided to follow words of God in a thorough manner. People would feel closer to us if we open the convent. All the readers of the Women's News are welcome as well. (laughter)”