Pope’s Korea visit holds lessons for West’s struggling church

The following op-ed was originally written for translation into Korean for Newsweek Korea.

Judging by the ecstatic reaction to his visit that ended Monday, Pope Francis has no shortage of admirers in South Korea. Up to one million people reportedly crowded into Gwanghwamun for Saturday’s Mass to beautify 124 Korean martyrs, one of the highlights of the visit. The pontiff’s popularity, which is replicated right around world, is understandable. In his public pronouncements, Francis has tended to emphasis uncontentious Christians principals, such as charity and compassion. By appearing to strike a less judgmental tone than his predecessors, he has even managed to attract the admiration of many liberal non-believers normally disdainful of organized religion. In South Korea, the interest in and enthusiasm for his visit clearly extended well beyond the devotedly Catholic.

While respect for the current pontiff may be widespread across different countries, however, Korea’s relationship with the Catholic Church is far from typical. It is a cliche among those familiar with the country to say that Korea is a land of contradictions. But, once again, this characterization is apt in describing Korea’s relationship with Catholicism and religion generally. By Western standards, Korea has a high number of citizens who profess no religion at all. At the last census in 2005, almost half of South Koreans said they did not belong to any religion, a greater portion than in the U.S., UK and France.

At the same, the pope’s first trip to Asia was to country where Catholicism is on the ascent, albeit from a modest base (about 10 percent of the population is Catholic.) At a time of declining religiosity across the developed world, the church in Korea has managed to consistently grow its flock. The number of Catholics has almost tripled since the mid-80s. And the trend shows little sign of receding. The number of Catholics and new ordinations in the country both grew last year, according to the church authorities.

In the UK, by contrast, the number of ordinations last year was just a tenth of the figure in 1965. In my own country, Ireland, the shortage of vocations to the priesthood is such that the Association of Catholic Priests has called for the church to allow women and married priests, which would be a break from more than 2,000 years of tradition.

“The reality is that in 20 years there will be few priests in Ireland and those that are still standing will be mainly in their 70s,” wrote one Irish priest in an article posted on the association’s website in June.

Along with the almost inevitable secularization that accompanies increased wealth, Ireland’s church has had to grapple with the fallout of child sex abuse scandals involving members of the clergy. Compounding the public’s revulsion and disillusionment, the church authorities were found to have covered up numerous such crimes against children.

It is not difficult to identity reasons for the decline of the church in Ireland or other Western countries. The more intriguing question is: what makes Korea, a rich, modern country, so different from its peers across the developed world?

One possible explanation for the church’s enduring popularity, say some experts, is its role in political and social activism.

“Several factors lie behind the rapid growth of the Catholic Church in Korea in recent decades: for example, its active support of the pro-democracy movement in the South in the 1970s and 80s, enabling it to win the hearts and minds of a great many Koreans, especially of the intelligentsia,” Timothy Lee, a professor at Brite Divinity School in Texas, told me as I was researching an article on the pope’s visit.

Professor Lee further speculated that the church had benefited from “having kept itself free from major scandals, especially of sexual and financial kinds; (and) its respectful attitude toward other religions, especially Confucianism and Buddhism.”

Of course, activism is a double edged sword. A cause that impresses one person might just as easily alienate another. Nevertheless, there is no denying that the church in Korea has done something right in terms of maintaining its relevance for a wealthy and educated citizenry.

Whatever the reason for the growth of Catholicism, Korea surely offers lessons for church authorities anywhere the faith is in decline. Whether in Dublin or Detroit, Catholic leaders hoping to revive the fortunes of the church could do worse than look to their counterparts in Northeast Asia.


[The Christian Science Monitor] On first trip to Asia, Pope Francis greets a growing congregation

The following article was originally published in The Christian Science Monitor. — John. 

At South Korea’s most prominent cathedral, worshippers must come early. Like they do every week, Catholics attending midday mass at Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul on Sunday waited in long lines outside in the hope of getting a seat.

While large attendance is the norm at the church located in one of the capital’s busiest shopping areas, Sunday’s sermon held special significance ahead of Pope Francis’ visit. He arrives here Thursday for a five day visit, his first trip to Asia as pontiff.

The visit highlights the remarkable growth of the Roman Catholic Church in a country that has defied international trends by simultaneously becoming more wealthy and more religious. Since the last visit of a pope to South Korea in 1989, the number of Catholics here has almost tripled, rising to more than 10 percent of the population and a third of all Christians.

Recommended: How much do you know about the Catholic Church? Take our quiz!

“This visit by his Holiness to Korea has a very special meaning for us,” Father Luke Koh Chan-keun told the congregation, which included dozens of worshippers who stood due to a lack of seats. “He is coming to … pray for forgiveness and reconciliation between the divided people of South andNorth Korea. We hope that the Korean church can become the center of Asia through his visit.”

Social causes appeal  

Part of the resilience of the Catholic Church in South Korea compared to Protestant churches that have seen declines in followers here is due to its active involvement in largely liberal social causes, according to some observers.

From being heavily involved in the pro-democracy movement in the 1970s and 80s, Catholic priests and laity have in recent years taken positions on more contentious issues. Dozens of Korean Jesuits and local priests and nuns have been arrested since 2011 in protests against the construction of a naval base on the popular tourist draw Jeju Island. Priests also protested the erection of high voltage power lines in Miryang, a small city in the southeast of the country.

“Those social activities, movements make ordinary people regard Catholicism, generally speaking, as kind of a religion they can count on, or they can trust,” says Hwang Kyung-hoon, the head of the Center for Asian Theology Solidarity at the Woori Theology Institute in Seoul.

It is also clear that many Koreans are impressed by Pope Francis’ image as a humble pontiff uninterested in the pomp of the office.

“He is humble and always trying to be with the people who really need some help,” says Hwang Eun-heay, a young hospital worker in Seoul who plans to watch the main events online.

While Protestantism is still the dominant Christian religion in Korea, it has failed to keep pace with the Catholic Church’s rise. Its proportion of followers fell by 1.5 percent between 1995 and 2005, and various denominations have been plagued by scandals in recent years. Most recently, Rev. Cho Yong-gi, the founder of the Yoido Full Gospel Church, believed to have the world’s largest congregation, was sentenced to three years in prison for embezzling church funds.

High expectations 

Such goodwill and admiration mean that Pope Francis’ visit, timed to coincide with World Youth Day, also comes burdened with heavy expectations. The Catholic and broader Christian community hope his presence can provide solace to a society grappling with income inequality, relations with North Korea, and the lingering trauma of April’s Sewol ferry disaster that killed hundreds of schoolchildren.

After meeting President Park Geun-hye on Thursday, Pope Francis is set to meet survivors of the Sewol and families of the victims at a mass in Daejeon, a city some 80 miles south of Seoul, on Friday. On his final day on Monday, he will dedicate mass at Myeongdong Cathedral to peace and reconciliation between the two Koreas.

“The Pope’s visit is a visit for peace in our country, and because Korean society these days is a little disordered, it would be a great help if Korean society could come together,” says Kim Ji-seong, a health worker who attended Sunday’s midday Mass in Myeongdong.

Catholicism is widely considered to have had its formal start on the Korean Peninsula in 1784, with the establishment of a prayer house by Yi Sung-hun, a Korean baptized in Beijing who formed his community in Pyongyang. An estimated 10,000 Catholics were killed in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Confucian authorities of the day, a chapter that will be marked by Pope Francis on Saturday when he beautifies 124 martyrs.


Amid such anticipation, controversy and signs of unmet expectations have already emerged before the pontiff has stepped foot in the country.

Some families of the victims of the Sewol and their supporters, who have been on hunger strike for the passage of a special law to investigate the disaster, have vowed to continue their protest at Gwanghwamun Square, the site of Saturday’s beatification ceremony.

For others such as the young hospital worker Hwang, consoling words alone might just be enough.

“I just hope that he can console the people who are suffering and fighting for what’s right,” she says. “I also want his love, kindness and braveness to affect people so they can do what’s right and gain the courage to say the right thing out loud.”