The challenges of the church

The Catholic Pastoral Institute, which was launched on the initiative of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in its analysis said that South Korea is facing its own crisis of faith. According to the Statistical Yearbook of the Catholic Church in Korea the number of believers actively engaged in the sacramental life is decreasing. The baptisms of children, first communion, and attendance at catechism, all related to the transmission of the Christian faith to the younger generations, are also in decline. In terms of Church leadership the aging of the population, with young people under 19 in drastic decline and those over seventy on the rise, is to be noted.
On the occasion of the Year of Faith in progress, the Church of the Asian country is facing two particular commitments. The first is to retrieve the interest of the younger generation, the second to identify strategy and actions for the elderly, of which a large percentage is living on the edge of deprivation and loneliness.
Among the incentives to religious disaffection and materialism, the Korean bishops point the finger at the traditional mass media and the ‘new media’ that exert a great influence on society as a whole, since they are often offshoots of the main protagonists (television, the recording industry, multinational companies …) of secular culture, trying to counteract its influence with its own information tools, either printed (Peace Times, Catholic Times Weekly) or multimedia (Pyunghwa Broadcasting Corporation) active in spreading the Christian ideal, especially in social, cultural and political engagement, with the active involvement of the laity.
What, however, are the reasons for the success of the Korean Church, and what are its limits today? Msgr. Peter Kang U-il, chairman of the Korean Bishops’ Conference, said: “At the beginning of its history in the eighteenth century, the Korean Catholic Church gave concrete evidence of its faith in God through martyrdom in subsequent persecutions. More recently, during the dark period of the military dictatorship that lasted nearly thirty years until 1993, the Church sought to protect and defend the basic human rights.
The church hierarchy did not hesitate to speak of freedom and human rights to those who were oppressed by the regime. The Church’s commitment in working, in particular, with the poor, demonstrated its sincerity to the population”.
In recent years, however, limits have also emerged, which Msgr. Kang summarizes as follows: “In recent decades, society has achieved a great industrial development, which has resulted in a growing tendency towards materialism and individualism which have resulted in all morals concerning human life being put in second place. In this social context, the Church is making every effort to make its voice heard in government, the NGOs and public organizations, so that they will respect the importance and value of human life and the environment. For the future, we should not only focus on numerical growth but also work so that the values of the Gospel of the Kingdom will bring about real changes in the world in which we live”.


The Catholic Church has developed good relations with the other religions present in South Korea, The contacts and sometimes joint initiatives with Protestants, Anglicans, Orthodox, as well as with Buddhists and Confucians, are not infrequent, as are regular exchanges of greetings on the occasion of mutual major anniversaries and feast days. The collaborative and dialogic attitude of the Catholic episcopate is appreciated, but differences persist however, and sometimes a ‘political’ use of religion that the mass media and leading editorials also perpetuate.
“In Korea, the development of Minjung theology (a form of liberation theology adapted to the Korean situation) provided the basis for the commitment of the Church in a very difficult period in the history of the country. In the twenty-first century, the challenge is to make this theology part of the social ecumenical responsibility in dealing with current issues such as justice, peace and reconciliation. What is needed is a spirituality that deals with the real world, that addresses local challenges and does not leave them unresolved”. So Samuel Kobia, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, argued some time ago, noting a trend already in place.
This ‘immediate’ transfer from the theological plane to the social (and political) one, which is already present in ecumenical theology today in Asia and that pushes towards the liberation of the people from injustice, exploitation, oppression and racial discrimination finds in Minjung theology a figure of the Christ who is ‘the liberator of the oppressed’.
The most followed faith in the country is Buddhist, with around 10 million followers (22.8% of the population). It is followed by Protestants (8.6 million, 18.3%) and Roman Catholics.
Mahayana Buddhism came to Korea in 372, establishing itself gradually in the three kingdoms of Koguryo, Baekje and Shilla, albeit with strong influences of pre-existing shamanism. With varying degrees of fortune and persecuted during the Choson dynasty (1392-1910), Buddhism has provided spiritual support to the Koreans also under the strong influence of Confucianism, a doctrine created by the élite themselves and that for centuries shaped Korean society.
The spread of Protestantism began in 1884 and its growth was relatively slow, as well as that of Catholicism until after World War II. Since the eighties, the ‘conversions boom’ led Protestants to increase tenfold.

North-South Korea

South Korea 4_1408DO-2The World Watch List report in 2013 on the freedom of religious practice, compiled by the American Open Doors, put North Korea in the first place with regard to hostility towards Christianity. Also according to the report, in the ‘hermit country’ there would be today from a 100 to 400 thousand Christians, the majority of Protestant membership, involved in the experience of the ‘domestic churches’, or small nuclei of baptized with few relations between themselves, which can thus more easily evade surveillance and persecution. Many of the baptized ended up in prison and work camps, where they are still locked up; according to Amnesty International estimates, over 200 thousand are detained for political conscience or faith reasons. A nightmare, the one managed by the Pyongyang regime, which projects across the border also.
“For nearly sixty years the Koreans have lived under the threat of war. The possibility that this materializes has always been present and directly in front of our eyes – recalls the president of the Korean Bishops’ Conference – everywhere in the world, the policies of communist governments have proved to be unsuccessful and North Korea is a perfect example. It is difficult to imagine that the current structure of the North can last a long time, but equally so that its starving and terrified population can shake off the political shackles, just as it is difficult to think that the problem can be solved by an increasing pressure from the outside”.The Korean Church has provided humanitarian aid to the North since 1995, as well as providing a special pastoral care to those who manage to flee to South Korea. There is not even one resident priest and there’s no parish community to organize the few thousands Catholics there, but the Catholic Church in Korea has continually sought to maintain relations with the uncertain catholicism of the North and provide it with every possible support so far requested through the official bodies.
“It is virtually impossible to know how many Catholics today survive in North Korea and what activities are allowed them”, explains the president of the Korean Bishops’ Conference Mgr. Peter Kang U-il. Among these, expressions of faith, that are not approved and organized by the North Korean Catholic Association, which runs the only Catholic place of worship officially opened, are not included: the church Changchung in Pyongyang, was built with funds from the international Catholic solidarity.

South Korea 4_1408DO-3

On 21 May last, a Catholic cardinal entered North Korea for the first time. A short visit, only a few hours, to meet with South Korean workers in the Kaesong plant, a joint production initiative between the two countries started a dozen years ago and located about ten kilometers from the border, perhaps the most militarized and most unstable one in the world. Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung, Archbishop of Seoul, who is also the apostolic administrator of Pyongyang, wanted to bring a message of encouragement and hope in a time of tensions on both sides of the border.
Also because of this, the government of the South welcomed the initiative. The South Korean Unification Ministry expressed the hope that the visit would contribute to improving relations between the two sides of the Korean Peninsula. Denied, however, were the stories taken up by the local media of an occasion that would serve to open the way for a spectacular initiative of Pope Francis during his trip to South Korea. In January 2014 at the time of his appointment as cardinal, the archbishop declared that he believed his call to be a possibility to give “full support to the evangelization of the Church in Asia, in particular that of China and North Korea”.

Stefano Vecchia


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