Why the Church is growing fast in South Korea

The Confucian kingdom sought to exterminate Catholics in the 19th century but now the whole country admires the Church

This article was first published in The Catholic Herald on 8 August 2014.

Korean chaplaincy

Last month it emerged that the South Korean pop star known as Rain had become a Catholic. The 32-year-old hip-wiggler, Asia’s answer to Justin Timberlake, is one of tens of thousands of people being baptised Catholic each year in South Korea. The Church there has been growing rapidly for decades. In the early 1970s the faithful numbered less than a million; now there are over five million, about a tenth of the population.

Pope Francis will be visiting the country for four days next week, and is unlikely to face a hostile press. The Catholic Church has a good image among South Koreans – according to a recent survey it is the most trusted institution in the country.

The Church’s vitality is evident at the Korean chaplaincy in Sutton, south London, where 300 people gather every Sunday. The community saved up over decades to buy its own church rather than borrow diocesan buildings – it is the only expat group in Britain apart from the Poles to have done so. When I visit during the week volunteers are putting out flowers and statues of the Virgin Mary for a Legion of Mary meeting.

Sister Maria Yu (pictured), who is based at the parish, hands me a thick sheaf of paper – a print-out of the history of Catholicism in Korea produced by the bishops’ conference. It explains that the Church in Korea was founded by Koreans themselves. Confucian intellectuals became attracted to Catholic ideas in the 18th century; one member of the elite was baptised during a trip to Beijing in 1784 and the faith spread quickly on his return. A priest was sent from China after the community realised it could not nominate its own priests.

For the next century Catholics in Korea faced terrible persecution. The Confucian authorities saw them as a dangerous challenge to the social order – officials in 1801 wrote that if Catholics were not exterminated the land would “fall into ruin and become fit only for savages and wild animals”. In several waves of persecution more than 10,000 of Korea’s faithful were killed. The commitment shown in those early years is remarkable. An official record states: “Though it is normal for human beings to love life and fear death, when [Catholics] are brought to the execution ground they look on it as a comfortable place to lie down and take a rest.”

Over the following decades Catholics were pushed to the margins. They lived together in isolated villages and became potters, a trade at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Most of those killed were Korean, although in 1866 a handful of French priests were executed too.

The persecution stopped in 1885 after a different faction of the Korean elite gained power and opened the country up to the outside world. Yet the Church did not experience its extraordinary growth until almost a century later. According to Korea experts, the widespread respect the Church has gained has much more to do with its actions in the late 20th century than its persecution in the 19th century.

From 1961 to 1987 South Korea was ruled by a dictatorship. During those years the Catholic Church had a central role in the movement calling for democracy. Nuns and priests were on the frontline of protests; a bishop was among those jailed.

At the time the Church was led by Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, a giant on the national stage who was regarded as a moral authority by all sections of society. Donald Baker, a professor of Korean history at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, explains that politicians seeking to be elected as president would meet him before announcing their candidacy. At his funeral in 2009, Prof Baker says, the country’s most prominent Buddhist leader bowed before his coffin.

Prof Baker, in his essay “From Pottery to Politics”, notes that from the 1960s the Catholic Church also began founding colleges, universities and hospitals. He argues that the era marked a turning away from a “ghetto mentality” caused by persecution to an “awakening of Catholic social conscience”. In this the Church was actually following the example of Protestant missionaries who had set up hundreds of schools and hospitals in the late 19th century. It was through these institutions that Protestantism, and later Catholicism, became associated with modernity. In South Korea in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, says Prof Baker, “to be Christian was to be modern”.

Prof Baker, a Catholic and the leading authority on Catholicism in Korea, lives for part of the year in the South Korean city of Gwangju. There, he says, “people brag about being Catholic”. Joining the Church “marks you as serious”, he says. Catholics, in contrast to the born-again Protestants, are associated with “emotional reserve”.

He also explains that there is a strong sense of community. People come early to Mass to sing hymns and stay for lunch for two or three hours afterwards. His parish is split into small neighbourhood groups that meet regularly and look after each other.

This sense of community is apparent in Sutton. The priest, Fr John Kwon (pictured), who only arrived in November, is visiting the homes of all his parishioners – photographs of him with different families cover the doors of the church. When I visit I am treated to a banquet of squid, pancake, spiced cabbage and all kinds of meats.

Albert Chun, the parish secretary (pictured right), explains that going to Mass involves more than “just saying hello”. “We hug together and have personal relationships and take part in small group activities,” he says.

Fifty parishioners are members of the Legion of Mary, who meet in groups of 10 throughout the week. Mr Chun says the popularity of the lay group, founded in Ireland in 1921, reflects the deep respect mothers have in Korean society. Members meet in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary, pray the rosary and are heavily involved in volunteer work.

Not all Korean Catholics, however, are confident about the future direction of their Church. Fr Denis Kim SJ, a member of the social science faculty at the Gregorian University in Rome, says only a third of Catholics now go to Mass. He also notes that the average age of congregations is rising. “The red light is blinking,” he says. His hope, he explains, is that the visit of Pope Francis inspires younger Catholics and “gives a sense of direction” to Church leaders”.

Why the meeting between pope and patriarch in Jerusalem matters

The schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches is still wide, but Ukraine reminds us how important the relationship is

This article was first published by the Guardian on 24 May 2014.

Pope Francis, Bartholomew I

In Jerusalem on Sunday, Pope Francis will meet Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the honorary head of the Orthodox church. The two men, representing Christian traditions estranged for 1,000 years, will pray together in public. They will sign a hitherto undisclosed joint declaration. It is likely that they will give each other a hug.

For many people a meeting between Christian leaders wearing different hats might not seem like such a political high point. But, in fact, it’s the reason for Francis’s three-day trip to the Holy Land.

Fifty years ago, in January 1964, a pope and a patriarch met for the first time since the 15th century. It marked a growing rapprochement between Catholics and Orthodox Christians. It is that meeting, which also took place in Jerusalem, that Francis and Bartholomew are intending to commemorate.

Observers may wonder, given the likely warmth of the meeting, whether the two churches are close to ending the Great Schism, a split that formally began in 1054 when Cardinal Humbert, the pope’s representative, marched into the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and placed a papal bull of excommunication on the altar. Talks aimed at an eventual reunion have been held since the late 1970s, driven by the idea that division among Christians is a scandal.

These days Roman Catholics have no beef with the Orthodox church. On their side the theological differences seem small. Yet experts say unity is a long way off – as in it probably will not happen this century.

The two theological sticking points are the same now as they were in 1054. One is the pope. Orthodox Christians are happy with him as a figurehead, like the Queen, but are alarmed at the idea that he might intervene in their affairs or boss around their patriarchs. Catholic teaching, meanwhile, holds that the pope has “full, supreme and universal power”. The way around this is to define clearly the limited situations in which he might exercise jurisdiction over the east.

The other problem is the filioque. This refers to the words “and the Son” added unilaterally by the western church to the Nicene Creed (the summary of the Christian faith agreed on in the fourth century). This inflamed east-west relations so much that in 867 AD, Patriarch Photius of Constantinople called the pope who approved it a “heretic who ravages the vineyard of the Lord”. The change itself is a subtle one. It annoyed the Orthodox church though, because it believed that any amendment to such a central part of the faith should be agreed by consensus at a council.

Most theologians now think the filioque issue is minor – that it is an acceptable variant between east and west. Yet that relaxed approach won’t go down well with many Orthodox Christians, for whom it is still a serious heresy.

And there’s the rub. A large number of Orthodox Christians still feel strongly that Catholics are heretical. This idea is probably most common in Greece. A visit to the country in 2001 by Pope John Paul II provoked furious protests, with one body of priests describing him as a “grotesque two-horned monster”. More recently, two Greek Orthodox bishops wrote an 89-page letter denouncing Francis, saying his election was the result of a Jewish conspiracy.

Read the rest of the article here.