At 83 years of age, Maryknoll Father Gerard Hammond isn’t running around seeking recognition – as he laughingly put it, “I’m not really running at all anymore.” Yet recognition found him anyway on Tuesday, as he received the Gaudium et Spes Award from the Knights of Columbus for his service to the sick and suffering in North Korea.
A missionary in South Korea since 1960, Hammond began visiting North Korea in 1995 and has made more than fifty trips delivering medical supplies and care for patients with tuberculosis, making him one of the very few Westerners with regular access to what’s considered one of the world’s most closed societies.
Hammond’s sparkle despite his age is contagious. Here’s a typical example: He said he recently joked with a “younger” Maryknoller, meaning a guy in his sixties, by asking whether he was in the guy’s will. When his confrere just looked at him uncomprehending, Hammond said, he was ready with his one-line riposte.
“If I’m not, then I won’t come to your funeral!” he shot back.
Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, praised Hammond’s missionary commitment. (The Knights of Columbus are among Crux’s principal sponsors.)
“In Father Hammond, the Knights of Columbus recognizes a courageous and untiring missionary priest who has ministered in a most challenging field for the good of people in need,” Anderson said. “Although almost no one he meets in North Korea knows what a priest is, they see that he represents something greater than himself.”
In Hammond’s view, expressed in a July 31 interview with Crux, whatever the geopolitical situation, North Korea isn’t the rogue society or outlier it’s often presented as in the global media: “People are the same all over the world, really,” he said.
“They’re just ordinary people trying to get better and to be in good health, so we should be there,” he said. “Where there’s suffering, that’s where Christ is, and where Christ is, why shouldn’t we be there?”
In a typically humble flourish, Hammond insisted that the award presented during the Knights of Columbus annual convention, staged this year in St. Louis, wasn’t really just for him.
“At first, I was surprised, and, in a sense, I felt embarrassed, to tell you the truth,” Hammond told Crux. “I’m only doing what all grassroots missionaries do.
“Pope Francis says to go to the periphery, and so we go,” he said. “If they’d been in the same position, any ordinary missionary would be doing the same thing all over the world.”
In the end, Hammond said, he reached the conclusion that the award is really for the Maryknoll order, which he entered in 1947, as well as ordinary missionaries everywhere, and for the Korean people.
Originally from Philadelphia, Hammond said his love affair with Korea has deep roots.
“I was ordained in 1960, and before that happens Maryknoll gave you the opportunity to list your first, second and third choices [for missionary assignments],” he said. “I had a friend who later became a bishop in Korea, so I heard a lot about it, and he told me I had to come.”
Thus when it was time to submit his choices, Hammond said, he listed Korea in spots one, two and three, and indeed that’s where he went. Shortly after his ordination, he flew to San Francisco to get on a marine freighter, heading from there to Alaska and several ports of call beyond before landing on a small island in South Korea’s Inchon Harbor.
When he arrived, Hammond said, he didn’t speak Korean and was every inch the outsider. Years later, however, he’s sufficiently native that he actually has a Korean name, “Ham Jae Do,” and considers the country his home.
“I want to be together with the Korean people, trying to make their lives a little bit more happy and joyful,” he said, “just as others are trying to do here in the States.”
When the opportunity presented itself to begin visiting North Korea, under the aegis of the Eugene Bell Foundation, a U.S.-based foundation providing medical humanitarian assistance to rural North Korea, Hammond said it felt absolutely natural.
“Maryknoll arrived in Korea in 1923, when it was a colony of Japan and not yet divided into north and south,” he said.
“That ended with their imprisonment in World War II, but as young priests we always thought that by mid-life we’d be on our way back,” he said. “I always expected to go back to the north, and as the years went by, I was always yearning to go there.”
Hammond said that the people he’s encountered in the north haven’t really been a revelation to him, since they’re very similar to his friends in the south. What has been a surprise, he said, is how completely he’s been welcomed.
“When you think of it this way, I’ve got an American passport, I’m a Catholic priest, and I’m coming up from the south,” he said. “I was surprised I was accepted at all, but the Ministry of Public Health and of Foreign Affairs approved me as part of the delegation.
“They were most welcoming, which was a surprised based on all the negative news,” he said.
Hammond said he’s never felt out of place, or like he’s in a bizarre alternative universe in North Korea.
“To be frank, I’ve never felt uncomfortable at all,” he said. “I’m always treated with a lot of respect and kindness.
“I see it as an opportunity to renew myself spiritually, seeing so many people who need assistance,” he said.
Asked about North Korea’s reputation for deep hostility to Christians, regularly ranking among the worst offenders in the world on indexes of anti-Christian persecution, Hammond said he’s been able to steer clear of that with basic human kindness.
“If you greet people with respect and reverence, it goes a long way further than arrogance,” he said.
“If you treat a person with kindness and respect, they’re going to be different, no matter who the person is,” Hammond said. “It’s just as the Holy Father says … if you show mercy and compassion, they’re going to change.”
He insisted that much of what the rest of the world knows, or thinks it knows, about North Korea, is based on misimpressions.
“A lot of people who write articles [about North Korea], their reports are all the same,” he said. “How many of these people have ever been to North Korea? They’ve probably never even met a North Korean.”
“What people think on the outside is totally different,” Hammond said. “I don’t find people unduly tense or sensitive by the ordinary standards in the West, just normal people who need help, and they’ll say that to us.”
The Gaudium et Spes award comes with a $100,000 cash prize, and Hammond’s plans for the money are typically selfless.
“At first, I told people I wanted to buy a chocolate factory in Switzerland,” he said, “But I’m giving it to the Eugene Bell Foundation, which is really trying to serve the poorest of the poor.”
Despite being well beyond the ordinary retirement age, Hammond said he’s not done yet.
“We’re trying to build patient rooms for the twenty percent of people who aren’t cured” by the therapy Eugene Bell provides, he said. “That’s my vision and aim, and I hope I can live a few more years to get it done.”
Try as he might to insist that’s no more than what “missionaries all over the world do every day,” it’s hard to resist the conclusion that there’s something awfully special about Hammond. If nothing else, the fact that he’s a trusted friend in North Korea, despite being both American and a Catholic priest, makes him one of the more compelling Catholic stories going.