As for the Catholic Church, after the first baptized in 1631 and the first Korean celebrant in 1783 (even if the Church officially recognizes St. Andrew Kim Taegon, 1821-1846, ordained in 1845), its identity has been well-shaped by foreign missions, but even more, by Westernization and the opening up of society after the end of the military dictatorship in which the clergy played a major role.
The visit of Pope John Paul II in 1984 for the canonization of 103 Korean martyrs and in 1989 on the occasion of the 44th International Eucharistic Congress, were essential moments of consolidation and recovery.
“We see with concern the signs of deterioration that drive the Catholic Church in our country to recognize the need for a renewal of faith. In fact, even with the strong growth in the number of Catholics, we cannot turn a blind eye to the continued deterioration in the Church. The most critical point is that the very life of the Church itself needs to receive the new evangelization in its radicalism, and not only as a passing movement or a simple pastoral initiative. Because of this we must be careful of the shadow of secularism that is spreading even over the Church, as part of the phenomena that involve the whole of society”, noted Father Joseph Sun-yong Park, vice-director of the Korean Catholic Pastoral.
Center of an ancient Christianity that went through severe persecution and historical events among the most troubled of the Asian continent, the country is also a socio-religious hotbed of great interest. The identity of the Korean Church does not ignore its original Confucian traits, the deep secularism, along with the foundations of martyrdom. On the contrary, these are constant sources of inspiration and identity and no obstacle to its heightened missionary sense.
Catholicism with its own specific features
When the French missionaries arrived in Korea in 1784, they found a Catholicism already vital and solid, but with its own specific features. A faith with decisive Confucian influences. Not by chance. They were in fact some writers, from the embassies in Beijing to confirm the relationship of vassalage with the Celestial Empire, to identify in the attendance of the Jesuits at the Chinese imperial court, where Matteo Ricci arrived in 1601, and in the particular traits of early Chinese Christianity, spiritual and cultural elements harmoniously integrated.
The elitist movement, begun in 1631, was to bring the scientist and mathematician Ik Yi (1682-1763) and his disciple Jung-bok Ahn (1712-1791), to be the first baptized Koreans and to the opening of a house of prayer in Seoul by a literary man, Sung-Heun Lee, ordained in Beijing in 1783, almost coinciding with the arrival of the first European mission, the following year.
This legacy, already enriched by at least 20 thousand baptized, was in danger of disappearing in the great persecution of 1866, ordered by the prince regent Dewongun of the Chosun Dynasty, which halved the size of local Catholicism and wiped out that of the missionaries. It was instead to see an extraordinary rebirth with the arrival of foreign missionaries.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the baptized were already at least 40 thousand. Without there being any unanimity about its role, there is no doubt that the contribution of Confucianism to the oldest Korean Catholicism was significant. As there is now no incompatibility between the ethical standards of Confucianism – making an exception for the rejection of female subordination and a too rigid and coercive social stratification – so in the past it must have appeared to the Confucian men of letters. Especially in the convergence of God (Tien, or Heaven, in Confucianism), individual responsibility towards the community and the importance of family structures.
The concept of ‘filial piety’, which applies not only to their parents or older relatives, but also in promoting relationships of correctness and courtesy among the young and the elderly, between subordinates and superiors, is not inconsistent with the values expressed by the Catholic Church. However, the influence of western culture and the development of new lifestyles, as well as the excessive density of population and consequent official policies have led to a loosening of the value of family relationships.
While formerly different generations lived together in the same house, today the trend is towards single-unit households formed only by parents and children.
Warning signs of stagnation
In recent decades, Christianity as a whole has had an uncontained growth in Korea, involving nearly a third of the population and becoming the majority religion of those who, slightly more than half of the population, declare themselves in some way religious. Catholics number 5.3 million, or 10.3 percent of South Koreans, compared with the almost 30 percent overall of the total baptized. Not all observers agree about the reasons for this ‘advance’ in a country that has always had its own social texture in Confucianism and its spiritual support in Buddhism. For the Catholic Church it is the need for greater spirituality and religiosity in a society that is undergoing a rapid process of economic development. Christianity has given to many the answer they were looking for, with a clergy, religious, a hierarchy that have been able to find appropriate spiritual instruments and adequate pastorals, in particular, with greater attention to the poor and marginalized, in a spirit of active engagement.In this spirit also the commitment in the seventies and eighties of the last century that accompanied the struggle for democracy against the military dictatorship, should also be remembered.
This involvement has earned the respect and esteem of the Church by society but today – probably precisely on account of the previous growth – warning signs of stagnation, even the decline of the numerical growth that involves both Catholicism and Protestantism, are being felt. The first reason is the accelerated socio-economic development and the secularism that is permeating every sector of Korean life. There are more and more, within the Catholic Church, who call for a more radical commitment to evangelization, which aims not only at a numerical development. A commitment based on numerous religious personnel in a country that for years has seen a boom in vocations in line with the increase of the newly baptized.
In 2011, ecclesial statistics showed a large number of priests, 4,621, almost tenfold compared to fifty years ago, when the priests were 503 out of a population of 26 million inhabitants, today almost double that. Many dioceses are able to send missionaries fidei donum to different areas of the world, but the number of those who aspire to the consecrated life is declining and efforts to contain this problem by the hierarchy, as well as by religious institutions, are not currently crowned with success.
According to the Rev. Joseph Park Sun-yong, vice-director of the Korean Catholic Pastoral Care, the local church is going through a ‘crisis of faith’. “The areas that urgently require a new evangelization, outlined in the Lineamenta and the Instrumentum Laboris of the XIII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (7 to 28 October 2012), are applicable in many respects to Korean society. However – warns Father Park – the cultural secularization has severely undermined the role of religion and faith in society”, and this calls for a sincere reflection and a renewed commitment. (S.V.)