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[INTERVIEW] 1st Indian twin priests ordained in Korea hope to help needy in both countries

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Fr. Xavier Sahaya Arul Selvan, left, and Fr. James Sahaya Arul Selvan pose at Seosomun Shrine History Museum in Seoul, Jan. 8. Korea Times photo by Lee Hae-rin
Fr. Xavier Sahaya Arul Selvan, left, and Fr. James Sahaya Arul Selvan pose at Seosomun Shrine History Museum in Seoul, Jan. 8. Korea Times photo by Lee Hae-rin

Brothers overcome culture shock, language barrier to follow dream

By Park Ji-won

It is not a simple road to become a Catholic priest in Korea, as it is in many other countries. To be ordained into the priesthood, men need to spend at least a decade in seminary training. Seminarians undertake bachelor's and master's degrees at Catholic universities to learn requisite skills, engage in volunteer activities and also mandatory military service. After the completion of these duties, various facets of the individual such as faith and personality are taken into consideration before ordination.

Due to the difficult process, about 30 percent of priestal candidates in Korea reportedly drop out. The country has two cardinals, 40 bishops and 5,538 priests according to 2020 data from the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea (CBCK). Cardinal Nicholas Cheong Jin-suk died on April. 27, last year.

Also, there are only 123 foreign priests active in Korea as of March 1, 2021, according to the CBCK data, and most of them came here after being ordained in their home countries, where it is easier to do so through education in their mother tongue than in a foreign language.

But on Dec. 8, 2021, James Sahaya Arul Selvan and Xavier Sahaya Arul Selvan, twin Indian Catholic friars of Franciscan Missionary Brothers of Service based in Korea's South Chungcheong Province, completed the difficult task and were ordained under the Korean Diocese. The 32-year-old priests are known as the first Indians, as well as twins to do so in Korea. The ordination ceremony was held at Solmoe Shrine in Dangjin, South Chungcheong Province, under the Catholic Diocese of Daejeon.

The ordination ceremony for Fr. Xavier Sahaya Arul Selvan and Fr. James Sahaya Arul Selvan is held at Solmoe Shrine in Dangjin, South Chungcheong Province, Dec. 8, 2021. Courtesy of Fr. James
The ordination ceremony for Fr. Xavier Sahaya Arul Selvan and Fr. James Sahaya Arul Selvan is held at Solmoe Shrine in Dangjin, South Chungcheong Province, Dec. 8, 2021. Courtesy of Fr. James

Fr. Xavier Sahaya Arul Selvan, left, and Fr. James Sahaya Arul Selvan smile after becoming ordained / Courtesy of Fr. James
Fr. Xavier Sahaya Arul Selvan, left, and Fr. James Sahaya Arul Selvan smile after becoming ordained / Courtesy of Fr. James
"It has been about a month since (my brother and) I became ordained. It is hard to put into words, but I was able to become a priest thanks to the support from others and my family in this new environment," Fr. James said during a recent interview with The Korea Times at the headquarters of the newspaper. The interview was held in Korean.

Many would wonder how they ended up wanting to become priests, coming from a Hindu-majority country. But the twins said it was a natural choice for them, as they were born Catholic and raised in Tamil Nadu in the southeastern coastal area of India, where there are a lot of Catholics. There are reportedly about 20 million Catholics in India.

Their parents went to a Catholic church and worked for Catholic schools in the town which was like a Catholic village. The twins naturally spent a lot of time in the church. Even though they did not talk about it to each other, becoming a priest had been their sole dream that naturally occurred in their minds from a young age, and their determination has never wavered.

Twin brothers Fr. Xavier Sahaya Arul Selvan and Fr. James Sahaya Arul Selvan at a young age in this undated photo / Courtesy of Fr. James
Twin brothers Fr. Xavier Sahaya Arul Selvan and Fr. James Sahaya Arul Selvan at a young age in this undated photo / Courtesy of Fr. James
"When we were young, we used to mimic the priests of our church holding a Mass by wearing a robe we made with towels. Clergymen looked so cool and I wanted to become one of them. As we spent most of the time in church, our parents even had to call the church to find us," Fr. James said.

They wanted to become priests in a diocese in India ― one way to get ordained ― but the head priest of the region, who has the power to issue the letter of recommendation necessary for becoming a priest candidate, had a bad relationship with their parents and the twins were unable to get the document.

They swiftly changed strategies and looked for a Catholic religous order which would accept them ― another way to become a priest.

Although the two routes to ordainment have similar requirements, such as studying at a theological university, the latter is more time-consuming and more difficult, as a member of an order is obliged to spend an additional two to three years in the order's community before entering a university. Also a priest of a specific order is required to live with members of the order unless they leave the priesthood.

As soon as they made up their minds, surprisingly, they were able to have an in-person meeting with Heide Brauckmann, founder of their current order in Korea, who happened to visit India for her order's branch for nuns there. The two said she approved their entry to the order on the spot.

"Everything happened so naturally and quickly. In 2010, we were accepted to the order after having an hour-long consultation with Brauckmann, which is extremely rare as normally it takes about a year of observation to get the approval from the head or the order," Fr. James said.

After joining the order on June 30, 2010, and being dispatched to the Order of Friars Minor in India for two years, they were dispatched to the order's Zambia community for a year and then sent to Korea in 2013.

Fr. James Sahaya Arul Selvan, left, Fr. Xavier Sahaya Arul Selvan during an entrance ceremony at Daejeon Catholic University / Courtesy of Fr. James
Fr. James Sahaya Arul Selvan, left, Fr. Xavier Sahaya Arul Selvan during an entrance ceremony at Daejeon Catholic University / Courtesy of Fr. James

But living in a new culture was challenging. Knowing almost nothing about the country or its language, they relied on each other and started from scratch.

"What I knew about Korea before coming here were only kimchi and the names of Korean companies like Samsung and Hyundai. But we arrived in Korea on our birthday on Aug. 13, which we found very special," Fr. James recalled.

"I never thought of giving up the dream, as it was my (and our) dream since we were kids. I was confident that I had a calling from God and I thought the best way to make the dream come true was to endure the difficulties," Fr. Xavier said.

Upon their arrival here, however, they had to face culture shock unlike anything they ever imagined.

"I remember the very first day of our arrival at the religious order. People of the community knew that we don't drink alcoholic beverages. In a welcoming party for us, however, a brother from an African country gave us canned beverages saying 'People who don't drink alcohol drink these beverages instead.' It tasted bitter and weird. But later it turned out that they were canned beers. It was the first time for us to drink alcohol in our lives. I realized that it was a part of Korean culture (to get to know each other with food and alcohol)," Fr. Xavier said.

"In our preconceived notions, priests and even churchgoers don't drink alcohol or smoke in India. Some believers even confess to priests after drinking and smoking. But in Korea, eating and drinking alcohol together is the way to mingle and build friendships even among priests. It was a huge culture shock for me, but I compromised to drink a can of beer to meet people here," Fr. James said.

"Also, people kept asking us who is the older brother, as age seemingly really matters in Korean culture. But we actually didn't know and grew up without thinking about birth order. Our parents forgot about who was born first because we looked so identical when we were born 10 minutes apart. So, we randomly decided the older brother, which is me, James, to answer people's questions."

Another big challenge for them was learning Korean language, although there were many similarities between Korean and Tamil, the mother tongue of the two ― there is a myth in Korea that Heo Hwang-ok, a Korean queen in 48 A.D. who migrated from India, spread her culture in Korea.

Fr. Xavier Sahaya Arul Selva, left, Fr. James Sahaya Arul Selvan / Courtesy of Fr. James
Fr. Xavier Sahaya Arul Selva, left, Fr. James Sahaya Arul Selvan / Courtesy of Fr. James
They spent a year learning Korean at Chungnam National University until they were admitted to Daejeon Catholic University. Thinking that their language ability was not good enough to understand the upcoming lectures at the university, they decided to stop using their mother tongue, as well as English which they learned while attending Nazareth Margoschis College in India, and to use only Korean all times when praying, communicating with others and even talking to each other, except for when speaking to family in India.

It worked well, especially thanks to the praying. Sooner or later, their Korean became fluent enough to understand university lectures, and they started to dream in Korean as well. But as a side effect, they started forgetting how to speak their mother tongue to some extent, which is a "mystery" to them, too.

"The brain is now set to function in Korean. We read the Bible and pray in Korean. When learning a foreign language, people tend to think something in their mother tongue and translate it to another language. But we just started thinking and praying in Korean from the beginning. I think it really helped with improving our language skills and changing the brain system," Fr. Xavier said.

"Nobody believes that we forgot our mother tongue and it is a mystery to us, too. My family in India says we speak grammatically incorrect Tamil. I think praying in Korean helped us improve the language and instead made us fast forget our mother tongue … Apart from Korean, I even feel more comfortable in using English than Tamil. So we are worried of holding a Mass in Tamil back in India which is scheduled to be held this month," Fr. James said.

As their language ability improved, they found themselves increasingly comfortable here. Life in Korea also influenced their personalities and lifestyles.

"The university made us learn an impossible amount of the Catholic church's 2,000-year history in only seven years (during bachelor and graduate courses). I think Korean educational institutes teach students fast and intensely … Now I've also become impatient with people acting slowly, just as many other Koreans who prefer to do everything fast. We just loved Korean dishes such as doenjang jjigae (soybean soup), kimchi jjigae and cheonggukjang (fermented soybean paste soup) from the beginning," said Fr. James. "Many people say that we must have been Koreans in a previous life."

In general, an ordained priest gets assigned to duty within a month, but as they have family living overseas, they got a special vacation from the order to travel to India for about a month. They are planning to meet their family members. "We have two younger brothers. The elder one is also attending a Catholic university as a diocesan hoping to become a priest there. And we will attend the younger one's wedding."

Fr. James Sahaya Arul Selvan, left, and Fr. Xavier Sahaya Arul Selva pose at Seosomun Shrine History Museum in Seoul, Jan. 8. Korea Times photo by Lee Hae-rin
Fr. James Sahaya Arul Selvan, left, and Fr. Xavier Sahaya Arul Selva pose at Seosomun Shrine History Museum in Seoul, Jan. 8. Korea Times photo by Lee Hae-rin

But ordination is just the beginning of one's career as a priest. They hadn't discussed what to choose for their lifelong motto from the Bible. But they both ended up choosing lines from the same chapter, Luke 4:18: "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, (Fr. Xavier) for he has anointed me to bring the good news to the afflicted. (Fr. James)."

The two have never been apart from each for long time since their birth, with six weeks being the longest when they were in different churches in Korea. They haven't planned specifically about their future, but it seems that they will work together to help people in difficult situations in Korea as well as in India as they jointly and unconsciously chose the identical passage from the scripture. In particular, feeling sad about the difficulties of young people and foreigners in the two countries, they hoped that they could unshoulder burdens of the young people by listening to them.

"The quality of life in Korea is high compared to other countries. But young people have a lot of difficulties, feeling unhappy out of uncertainties. It is hard to get a job and get married. After getting married, they have difficulties in finding a house amid rocketing housing prices. I think they can relieve their stress after meeting people, like priests, who simply listen to their stories," Fr. James said. "Foreigners, especially from Southeast Asian countries, are only labeled as 'foreign laborers' and they are not getting enough medical support and are having visa difficulties. I want to do something for them so that they can be treated with dignity."

Stressing that friars need to focus on living a religious life and helping others, Fr. Xavier said, "I want to build a hospital and education facility for people in India as there are many people and orphans who need the facilities. Also, I hope to build bridges between religions."

Fr. James hoped that he also could contribute to the collapse of India's caste system by showing love and giving educational opportunities to the socially marginalized.

"About 100 years ago, people with lower status in India weren't treated as human. It changed a lot, but still there are many people who are being treated badly like in the past. I want to do some activities that can show love to the people so they can realize they are human beings deserving love. I don't have a specific plan, but maybe giving them some educational opportunities would be a good way to make a better society."

The two plan to hold a Mass on Jan. 26 for the first time in Tamil in India after undergoing self-quarantine.

The Korea Times reporter Lee Hae-rin contributed to this story.


Park Ji-won jwpark@koreatimes.co.kr


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