For Korean-born Father Pil-koo John Hwang, 36, priesthood is an important answer in his quest to find the meaning of life.
When he came of age, he did not want to simply follow the currents of life. Instead, he wanted to examine them closely and consciously chose his own path.
“It’s always been a question of what kind of life I want to live,” he said.
As a teenager in Korea, he pursued his passion by enrolling in music school for his university studies. He studied jazz because he said it gave him the fundamentals of music, but his true passion is rock. He was even part of a couple of rock groups and one jazz group. He performed religious and secular music.
He had thoughts of a vocation to the priesthood, but he was not ready to commit to the strict environment of a Korean seminary, which he described as being more restrictive than seminaries here in the U.S. He still wanted to explore life.
As is required of all men in Korea, he enlisted in the military and served for 26 months. He did not forget about God. He attended Mass and helped out in the music ministry. He remembered home.
His parents were born and raised Catholics and imparted their faith on to their two sons. His paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather sometimes told him he should become a priest, but he does not think they really expected him to follow through on it.
From his childhood he remembers that he answered “priest” when someone asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up. That is because he thought of a priest as someone who others look up to.
When he was done with his military service, he was still not ready for the seminary. Instead, at the age of 26, he decided to join his brother in New Jersey. He held part-time jobs, learned English and enjoyed the many wonders of Manhattan.
Revels in Beauty, Diversity
He attended Broadway shows and reveled in the beauty of the diversity of New York City. It was something quite new to him; Korea mostly just has one culture, he said.
Being in the midst of such diversity, he said, one can really explore one’s own most inner self and begin to better understand the world.
However, he still had not found the answers he was looking for and thoughts of a priestly vocation have not left him.
That’s when he met Father Kevin Sweeney, who introduced him to the Pope John Paul II House of Discernment in Cypress Hills.
He liked the idea of joining the House of Discernment because it would still allow him the freedom to explore life and at the same time truly discern his vocation. He stayed there two years, and enrolled in Queensborough Community College.
Finally, he realized the call to the priesthood was authentic and he said: “Yes.” He was ready to serve in the Kingdom of God as one of His priests.
Father Hwang realized his life would be most meaningful if he could help save souls.
He finished his studies at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie. In his formation he served at Holy Spirit Church, Borough Park, and St. Mary, Mother of Jesus, Bensonhurst.
He also used his talent to compose music for Mass. Years of collaborative work are being completed just as he is ordained to the priesthood. His music can be heard on youtube.com/johnpilkoohwang.
“Music has been a big part my life, strengthening my faith and vocation,” he said. “And I’ll still be a musician as a priest, bringing more people to the Church through the beauty of music.”
Father Hwang will celebrate his First Mass of thanksgiving on Sunday, June 4, at 4 p.m. at St. Raphael Church, Sunnyside. He hopes to do so to the sounds of his own composition, which he has named the Mass of St. John of Capistrano.
He will also visit his hometown to celebrate a Mass of thanksgiving at St. Francis of Assisi Church, Daejeon, Korea.