Korea Gets Ready to Welcome Pope Francis to Asia

Pope Francis will travel to Korea, from Aug. 13 to 18. He is going there for a meeting with young people from 30 Asian countries at the Sixth Asian Youth Day, and to beatify 124 Korean martyrs from the first 50 years of the Catholic Church’s existence in this East-Asian nation that was evangelized by lay-people in the 18th century.

It will be his first visit to Asia since becoming pope. He is the second pope to visit Korea and its vibrant Catholic community; John Paul II came here in 1984 and 1989.

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To gain an insight into the country he is about to visit and the hopes his coming is arousing there, I interviewed Thomas Han Hong-Soon, aleading Catholic lay person, who served as the country’s Ambassador to the Holy See from 2010 to 2013.

Married with three children, Han graduated with a degree in economics from Seoul National University (1965) and in social sciences from Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University (1971), and has an honorary doctorate in Law from Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan. A lecturer in economics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul (1972-2008), and former president of the Catholic Lay Apostolate Council of Korea, he participated as a lay auditor in several synods of bishops. He also served as a member of both the Vatican’s Council for the Laity and of the International College of Auditors of the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See (2008-2010).

What’s the atmosphere in the Catholic community in Korea on the eve of the pope’s visit?

The Catholic community in Korea is looking forward with great anticipation to the visit of Pope Francis; it is counting the days and offering ardent prayers nationwide for his visit, at every Mass, meeting and event. The motto chosen for his visit—“Arise and shine” (Is 60:1) —summarizes its determination to mobilize the faithful for their triple evangelizing mission: evangelization of themselves, evangelization of the church and evangelization of society at large.

The Catholic community in Korea is now very excited and enthusiastic, and its laity, clergy and religious are busy studying Pope Francis’ exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.”

What do Korean Catholics think of Pope Francis? What do they hope from his visit?

They see in him “the good shepherd, who is willing to die for the sheep” (Jn 10:11). They are so grateful to the Lord for having sent them such a good shepherd who really translates into deeds what he says by words. They believe that he really is the one “who did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life to redeem many people” (Mt 20:28). They feel that pope is very close to them in their daily lives. They are so proud of him and of their being Catholics united with him. They hope that his visit will provide a momentum for renewal of their church, thereby giving a great impulse to evangelization of themselves, the church and the Korean peninsula, both North and South.

What’s the expectation among the population at large?

They appreciate the pope’s choosing Korea as his first destination in Asia. They are indeed proud of it. They are sure his visit will serve to enhance their nation’s position in the world, while hoping that it will give an impetus to the conversion of leadership style of their leaders and lifestyle of people at every level of society.

What in your view is the significance of his visit?

Pope Francis comes to Asia, to Korea, as pontiff, that is, as a builder of bridges with God and between peoples, and thus as an apostle of true peace, to encourage all Asians, all Koreans, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, to dialogue and work together to overcome all the inhuman situations that occur on the continent and to build a more equitable society, a more stable peace in the world.

What are the major issues, problems in the country today?

Problems vary: Unification of the country suffering division between South and North for 70 years; military tension between North and South (nuclear armament of the North); lack of trust between people and a culture of indifference; income inequalities, income polarization and a sense of relative deprivation.

What is the situation of the Catholic Church in Korea today?

The Catholic Church in Korea was started by Korean lay people, not by foreign missionaries, in the late 18th century and lived the first 100 years under severe persecutions in which more than 10,000 people gave their lives to bear witness to the faith. One hundred and three of these martyrs were canonized by John Paul II in Seoul in 1984; another 124 will be beatified by Pope Francis.

In North Korea, the persecution still continues under the Communist regime.

In South Korea, the church has grown considerably in the past half century. In 1960, Catholics numbered half a million, or 2 percent of the population, today they total 5.5 million, or 11 percent of the population. And the more we go up the social ladder—intellectuals, cultural sector, business, public sector—the higher the percentage. It means that the church in Korea is rather based on the middle class and beyond.

Korea is perhaps the only country in the world where the Catholic Church has grown hand in hand with economic growth. The increase in the economic well-being has often been associated with a decline in faith, but Korea dispels this link, since the Catholic faith has expanded along with economic growth.

A Buddhist research institute predicts that by 2044 more than half (56 percent) of the Korean population will be Catholic. If this pace continues, we can realistically expect the Catholic Church to be the largest religion in Korea in the near future. A recent survey of public opinion conducted by this Buddhist research institute indicates that the Catholic Church is valued as the most reliable religion in the country.

How has this come about?

All this comes from the witness of unity that the Catholic Church is offering the country, and above all unity with the pope. Unlike other religions in Korea, the church is in fact recognized as a religion of unity, of which the guarantor is the pope.

In the 1980s we had the privilege of receiving Pope John Paul II twice. His coming was a great gift for evangelization, and we believe the same will be true for Pope Francis, because the pope is the most effective missionary and has always been most highly regarded by the Korean people.

In addition, the church in Korea has been vigorously engaged in issues related to justice and human rights derived from the rapid economic growth of the country. Under authoritarian regimes (1960s-80s), the church stood on the side of the poor and oppressed, promoting their human rights bywords and actions, constantly doing charitable works for the needy. Thus, the church in Korea is unanimously recognized for its prophetic role, both within and outside the country, as a champion of human rights, and a moral reference point in Korea.

Since the 1980s the church in Korea has sentmissionaries abroad, and today 834 missionaries (181 priests, 621 sisters and 32 brothers) are carrying out evangelizing activities in 78 countries on all continents. So it has been transformed from a missionary-receiving to a missionary-sending church.

The church in South Korea seeks to improve the living conditions of the people of North Korea too, and hopes someday to be able to share with them “the joy of the Gospel.” So, it is committed to pray for reconciliation and unification of the nation, divided for 70 years now, while trying to provide humanitarian aid to the North.

All these kinds of witness have helped ​​the church earn the esteem of the Korean people. But we also recognize that our church in Korea is what it is "by God’s grace.”

What are ecumenical relations like between the Catholic Church and other Christian churches or communities in Korea? What are the inter-religious relations like?

First of all, it would be appropriate to mention the religious distribution of the population in Korea. According to government statistics, in 2005 the Buddhists totaled 10.72 million (23% of the population), other Christians counted for 8.61 million (18%), Catholics 5.14 million (11%) and those who declare they have no religion 21.86 million (46%). According to this data, Catholics and other Christian churches together constitute the majority of the religious population, with the Catholic Church as the largest single entity.

It should also be said that the Korean Catholic Church sees other Christian churches not as rivals but rather as partners for collaboration, even if some do not reciprocate this view. It never sees other religions in terms of competition. Indeed, it takes the initiative to lead the dialogue and cooperation with all religions to promote the common good of society, as well as a peaceful coexistence of religions. It can be said that Korea is one of a few countries in the world where there is such collaborative relationship between religions.

How is the pope viewed in Korea, outside the Catholic community?

Pope Francis is viewed as an ideal leader not only of the religion but also of society. His simple and humble lifestyle giving up even traditional papal privileges, his promoting the culture of love, his promoting justice and peace, his reaching out to the people in need, his love for the sick, marginalized, and so forth, all have had real impact on Koreans. In him they see a truly reliable leader. Koreans see in him the hope that the world can now be made a better place to live in.

What characteristic of Pope Francis most resonates with the Korean people?

Consistency in word and deed; they see in him a man who does what he says.

How significant is the beatification of the martyrs?

The first 100 years of the more than 200 years existence of the church in Korea were marked by severe persecutions which produced about 10,000 martyrs. Seventy-nine of them were beatified in 1925 and 24 were beatified in 1968, and John Paul II canonized all these in Seoul in 1984. They were martyred after the French missionaries arrived in Korea. Now most of the 124 who will be beatified this time were martyred before the arrival of the French missionaries; they were martyred during the first 50 years of persecution. They were actively engaged in laying the foundation of the church in its initial period. The preparatory process for their beatification was done by the Korean church.

It is providential that Pope Francis beatifies these 124 Korean martyrs during his first visit to Asia. We can say that by doing so he wants to express his pastoral solidarity with the faithful who are tormented by persecution, and to confirm these martyrs as excellent models of evangelization of the church and society.

What would you like him to say about unification?

I would like him to say that reconciliation between people must be the way for unification in the Korean Peninsula, and that the long-cherished desire of the people of Korea for reconciliation and peace must be achieved for the sake of peace in Asia and in the whole world.

I would like him to pray that this desire for reconciliation, unification and peace may be satisfied as soon as possible, and that all nations, especially the powerful nations, sincerely cooperate for the sake of this cause.

The pope will meet Asian young people from 30 countries during his visit: how significant is this?

It is really significant that Pope Francis meets and dialogues with Asian young people in their own continent, where some 720 million of them live. This meeting will serve as a valuable occasion to launch the young people as leading actors not only of tomorrow but also of today, both in the evangelization and in the renewal of society in Asia.

What do you hope from this visit?

Pope Francis comes to Korea and to Asia first and foremost as a missionary. I hope that his visit will provide a strong momentum for evangelization in Korea and in Asia.

He comes as an apostle of peace to a country that is still suffering the division between North and South. I hope his appeal for reconciliation and peace will arouse widespread attention both in Korea and around the world, and boost both national and international efforts for reconciliation and peace on the Korean Peninsula.

By beatifying the Korean martyrs, he will confirm that the martyrs are the true reformers. I hope that the spirit of the martyrs, which Pope Francis bears witness to, will provide a secure base on which to build a better world. And I sincerely hope that the leaders of the society as well as of the church in Korea will follow him as their model of leadership.

Finally, it is my sincere wish that all the faithful of Asia as well as of Korea, united with Pope Francis, will commit themselves to writing together with him another chapter of the Acts of Apostles in Asia, sharing with each other “the joy of the Gospel” as a sign of hope for all peoples in this new millennium.

Gerard O'Connell will be travelling with Pope Francis in South Korea from Aug. 13 - 18. You can follow his exclusive coverage of the papal trip on our group blog, In All Things

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