Pope Francis' Korea visit ignites movement toward unity
A South Korea-based U.S. missionary who frequently crosses the border to North Korea to bring medicine and support says that Pope Francis' visit advanced efforts to heal a divided country.
Father Gerard Hammond, an 81-year-old Maryknoll missionary, has lived in South Korea since 1960 and has made 51 trips to North Korea since 1995.
His mission: to stop deaths from Multi-Drug Resistant Tuberculosis in North Korea.
“Due to do the security laws in South Korea, it is very difficult to send humanitarian aid to North Korea without the agreement of the Ministry of Reunification,” the priest told CNA.
Fr. Hammond can enter North Korea thanks to the Eugene Bell Foundation, a U.S.-based organization allowed admission to enter the country to give humanitarian aid, which includes a “slot” for Catholic missionaries. The latest trip took place this spring from Apr. 21-May 6.
Their work is well-known in the Vatican, and Pope Francis had been informed about them.
“He met each one of the 14 Maryknollers in our Seoul House. When Pope Francis met me, he spoke two words, 'North Korea-tuberculosis' and squeezed my arm,” Fr. Hammond recounted.
He stressed that “the visit of our Holy Father was a great blessing for all of us especially for the Korean people that have suffered so much. His visit left a tremendous impression on all Koreans, Catholic and non-Catholic.”
“Now we have to implement the challenge to heal a divided country, society and church,” he said.
“I hope the visit of the Holy Father to be the spark for the beginning a move toward Peace on the Peninsula and for Reconciliation for the peoples of North and South Korea.”
Fr. Hammond will return to North Korea for a trip this fall from Oct. 13-Nov. 4, saying that “there is no shortage of places and people that need help, whether it is through medicine, diagnostic machines, or other critical supplies.”
Until now, “we delivered medical supplies to patients in 12 treatment centers. Starting early in the morning, we work ceaselessly to make sure all the patients waiting at each center could be tested and we could enroll as many new people as possible.”
Fr. Hammond explained CNA that the missionaries are able to use six Gene X-perts – state-of-the-art medical devices “that allow us to diagnose Multi Drug Resistant Tuberculosis within 2 hours and deliver medicine to critically-ill patients without having to wait 6 months until our next trip.”
“On each trip we treat a 1,000 Multi Drug Resistant tubercolosis patients.”
Until now, the missionaries have cured more than 70 percent of their patients, compared with a worldwide cure rate of only 48 percent.
Fr. Hammond recounted that “for the past few years, we have been providing nutritional assistance to patients to supplement their diet and aid in their quick recovery.”
“Patients receiving nutritional assistance have gained weight, energy, and are better prepared to finish their difficult multi-drug resistant treatment.”
He said he has been “happy to see patients who once had difficulty just holding up their boxes of medicine now happily talking about how they had put on extra pounds.”
For the majority of patients in North Korea who have been “suffering for years” from the condition, “there is no option for treatment” and “reliable testing for MDR-TB is not yet widely available.”
“For the sake of the unreached people of North Korea, we must keep fighting to bring medicine,” Fr. Hammond said.