The Catholic Church in Korea has expanded greatly in the last years, more than any other Church in the country.
In the last ten years, the number of Catholics increased by 2-3 percent a year, reaching 10.3 percent of the population (5,300,000 Catholics out of 50 million Koreans). This growth is the result of an impressive missionary commitment and of the impulse the bishop gave to new evangelization.
In 2009, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference Commission for Evangelization organized a workshop in which Roh Kil-myong, professor at the department of sociology of the University of Korea, gave a lecture entitled “The change in the religious sentiment in Korea and new evangelization.” Professor Roh ascribed this change (a general drop in religious practice) to the influence of post-modernism. According to him the church must meet this challenge by reading the signs of the times and re-examining its pastoral methods in order to make them more effective.
The clearest examples of the Church’s missionary effort have been the establishment of parish missionary groups and the call priests made to every believer (as suggested by bishops) to bring at least one more person to Church with him. Therefore, many parishes increased invitations to non-Christians to get to know the Catholic Church. Banners were hung outside churches and posters were put up in subway stations. Others also chose, like the Protestants, to hand out leaflets in subway trains.
The challenge of education
The number of Catholics undoubtedly grew. The growth in quantity didn’t always mean a growth in quality. The latest surveys of the episcopal conference show that the average age of believers is rising, despite their increased number. On the other hand, the number of children being baptized, receiving first Communion, and attending catechism lessons is decreasing. Youths frequent the church less and less.
Vocations are experiencing a decrease too. In particular religious orders – both male and female – even the biggest ones (Franciscans, Jesuits) and many local congregations, mainly of women. Notwithstanding, there is still a good number of vocations.
The biggest challenge for the Korean church is to improve education, before and after baptism. Many leave the church a few months – or years – after baptism because they do not fully understand the matters of faith. To have many faithful is good – that they are well educated is better. Otherwise, those who regularly attend Mass (now around 30 percent) will keep on decreasing. Many parish priests are well aware of this so they have begun courses for the faithful baptized in the last five years.
I think this is the path to follow, in particular with children and youths. We must focus more on reflection and on deepening the biblical and spiritual matters of faith than on learning theories and formulae by heart. Moreover, many Catholics in Korea are baptized when adults and a great number of them come from other religious experiences, both Christian and non-Christian. How can they understand the essential points of the catholic faith in just six months or a year of catechism? I have often met people that, before their first confession told me, “I do not know what I have to say.” I think evangelization should be firmer and deeper, rather than new. Otherwise, the Church risks becoming “a huge hospice.”
‘Missio ad gentes’ as a challenge
The Korean Church is still known for its number of vocations and ordinations, even if some bishops complain that they are lacking, since they aim to have at least two priests in each parish… even if the faithful there are only 2 or 3 thousand. When I tell priests that – for instance – in Portugal new priests are immediately in charge of two or three parishes, they don’t believe me. In Korea a priest becomes a parish priest after an average of three years as assistant. In the diocese of Seoul it takes more or less ten years. It is a good thing that a conscience of the ‘missio ad gentes’ is on the rise among bishops. Many are sending priests as ‘fidei donum’ in Latin America or Africa, in addition to the chaplains of the immigrant Catholic communities, which have been considered missionaries for years.
The Korean church, which was once helped by foreign churches with missionaries and financial aid, can now become – and must become! – more active in the ‘missio ad gentes’. This is indeed happening, but at a slower pace if compared, for instance, with the protestants. They send most missionaries in the world, after the United States. There are about thirteen thousand Korean protestant missionaries. There are far fewer Catholic missionaries. Their number is growing and this is a good sign. All the same, the ‘missio ad gentes’, the opening of the Korean Church to the universal mission of the Church, still is, in my opinion, the second important challenge to face.
This also requires that the faithful have a deep knowledge of the missionary and religious life. This is why we Consolata Missionaries are working in Korea. We help this church become an increasingly missionary church, even if many diocesan priests think they no longer need missionaries. According to them, we are wasting our time in Korea, instead of going to Africa or Latin America. Therefore, missionary formation must also involve seminaries. Thankfully, some bishops agree and send seminarians abroad. I am hopeful that, despite its difficulties, the Korean Church can meet all the challenges it has to face, finding adequate answers following Jesus’ example.