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”.

French Catholics start a revolution at Lambeth Palace

This article was first published in the Times on 26 July 2014.


Earlier this year a Catholic, a Lutheran and two Anglicans moved into Lambeth Palace. Their job, unlike most of the Palace staff, is not to prepare briefings or arrange meetings but to pray. Their arrival was hailed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, as a “profound step” on the road to Christian unity.

The group are from Chemin Neuf (“New Way”), a community started in France in the 1970s. Although Catholic-founded, it has an “ecumenical vocation” in seeking to unite Christians and, in this spirit, its membership is open to people from any denomination. It now has 2,000 members all over the world.

I met the four in the palace’s Pink Drawing Room, replete with chandeliers, a huge dining table and an oil painting of Thomas Newton, Bishop of Bristol in the 18th century. The group’s journey to Lambeth Palace began several years ago when Welby, who was then Dean of Liverpool, spoke at a Chemin Neuf conference. Later, he was impressed by a community spirit that drew people of various backgrounds and beliefs together, and asked Father Laurent Fabre, the founder of Chemin Neuf, if he could spare a few of his members for Lambeth.

The group is made up of a married Anglican couple, Alan and Ione Morley-Fletcher, a Catholic consecrated sister, Sister Ula Michlowicz, and Oliver Matri, a German Lutheran training to be a pastor. They explain that they live in a tower “with a dungeon at the top”.

Sister Ula says that she discovered Chemin Neuf during a holiday in France: “As a good Polish Catholic I just saw something new.” She was “shocked”, she says, by how radical it was, with priests and single people and married couples living in the same community. “I just thought, ‘wow’, they have something, a kind of joy, that I would like to have. Something true.”

She describes Chemin Neuf as a mix of the traditional and the new. On the one hand it is rooted in Ignatian spirituality, based on prayers and meditations written by St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, in the 16th century. But it has modern, charismatic elements, too: its members clap and sway and sing praise songs, and prayer can involve speaking in tongues.

None of that has had an impact at Lambeth Palace yet. Ione explains: “Up until now we’ve been learning how things are done. We haven’t got as far as seeing how we can build things, adapting a little bit here and there.”

Their day is structured around two prayer services and a Communion service in the Crypt Chapel of Lambeth Palace. As these are Anglican services, Sister Ula also goes separately to Mass twice a week at Westminster Cathedral; being Catholic she is not supposed to go up for Anglican Communion. She says she does not want to “make a big speech about it”. She explains: “It’s very new. It’s just been one month.” But it is “not easy every day”, she says.

As well as helping with prayer, the community is meant to be a hospitable presence for guests and for Lambeth officials rushing around trying to meet deadlines. The Rev Dr Jo Wells, the archbishop’s chaplain, says they remind staff that “life is not just about ticking off tasks — that we have a more ultimate purpose”. They add a “gentleness” to the system, she says.

The group also spends an hour a day in silent prayer, which allows staff to join in for short periods. “I can drop in for three minutes of it and the archbishop will dive in and out,” Dr Wells says.

Read the rest of the article here.

Is Chesterton’s life of wit and burgundy worthy of a halo?

The possibility that the Catholic Church could declare the author a saint has revived accusations that he was anti-Semitic

This article was first published in The Times on 22 February 2014.

Father Udris

The news that the Catholic Church is investigating whether the writer G. K. Chesterton might be declared a saint has had a mixed reaction. Devotees across the world who see him as a spiritual guide are delighted. His critics, who regard him as an anti-Semite, are horrified. Most people are merely surprised. Why should this quixotic Englishman, known for his Father Brown stories, his walrus moustache and his wit, be a saint?

One reason, his supporters would suggest, is that he has a global religious following. In Argentina, he is popular as a result of translations of his work by Jorge Luis Borges (the present Pope was a member of the country’s Chesterton society). In the Soviet Union, his book Orthodoxy, a defence of Christianity, was read in secret by dissidents, who passed it around page by page.

Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society, discovered Chesterton on his honeymoon. He first read The Everlasting Man, an attempt to rebut H. G. Wells’s atheist view of history. Chesterton is not, he argues, just a great literary figure. “There’s something that goes much deeper, [is] more profound in his writing. He really gets to the soul and affects people in a life-changing way.”

The American Chesterton Society started out as a literary club, he explains, and “accidentally sort of became a Catholic apostolate”. Ahlquist, originally a Baptist, says Chesterton inspired his conversion to Catholicism. When he told a conference that Chesterton’s canonisation was being looked into, he says, people “jumped to their feet and cheered”. Some started crying. “It was a powerful, emotional moment,” he says.

Ahlquist explains that he had always been keen on the idea of Chesterton as a saint. As a Baptist, he thought of Catholic saints as “all barefoot 14-year-old girls”. “The idea of a 300-pound, cigar-smoking journalist wearing a halo was just marvellous,” he says.

Canon John Udris (pictured) is the man charged with determining whether Chesterton might be a saint. He has to work out if Chesterton seemed to live a life of “heroic virtue”. After a year or so of research he will submit a dossier to the Bishop of Northampton, the Right Rev Peter Doyle, who will decide whether to begin the formal sainthood process. Father Udris lives in a Pugin gatehouse on the edge of St Mary’s College, Oscott, Birmingham, which he calls his “hobby hole”. A guitar is propped up against the kitchen table. Father Udris, who is spiritual director at St Mary’s, suggests that the heroism of Chesterton lies in his humility. “This man, who’s such an intellect — how did that not all go to his head?” He talks about Chesterton’s gratitude for life, for the world — for instance, saying grace not just before meals but before going to the theatre or opening a book. “His whole way of approaching life was to say thank you.”

His humility, he says, was evident in the charitable way he argued with his opponents. “People he would have fierce public debates with felt respected by him, loved by him, even if they didn’t agree with him,” he says. Chesterton, he argues, shows Catholics how to defend their faith with humility and courtesy. “He would always try to find something good in someone else’s idea.”

Father Udris is excited, too, that Chesterton “breaks the mould” of a stereotypical saint. As a married lay person who did not go to Mass every day and who “liked his beer and burgundy”, he would show people “you don’t have to say your rosary every five minutes to be holy”.

Read the rest of the article here.

Soho missionaries pulse with Nightfever

Young Catholics are accosting revellers on the street to find ‘hearts that hunger for God’

This article was first published in The Times on 11 January 2014.


On a Saturday night in a dark square in Soho young men and women are asking passers-by if they would like to light a candle in a church. They hold lanterns and look smiley and enthusiastic. Most passers-by ignore them, or say no, politely or impolitely. If they say yes, they are taken into St Patrick’s, a Catholic church near the decadent heart of Soho, where a choir is singing in candlelight. Here they can light their own candle, read a piece of scripture, or just sit and enjoy the calm. By the end of the night 360 candles have been lit.

The evening is called Nightfever. Two Germans came up with the idea in 2005, and it has since spread all over the world. In the past few months it has started in Glasgow, Oxford and Gosport in Hampshire.

One of the organisers in Soho says he was cynical when he heard about the concept at first. “I thought, what’s the point? People light a candle and then go out.” But actually, he says, people are often deeply touched. They say they will come in just for a minute and end up staying for an hour. One man even gave him a hug.

When I sit in the church a steady stream of people come through the door — students in bobble hats, women in stilettos, shoppers weighed down with bags. The atmosphere is as soothing for atheists as it is for believers.

The men and women taking part, mainly in their twenties, also seem to enjoy it. “It gets addictive,” says one girl. “You can have very real conversations very quickly.” She says “it’s not too far to say that [it can be] life-transforming”.

The popularity of Nightfever reflects renewed efforts in the Roman Catholic Church to share the Gospel in slightly more radical ways. At the end of the evening a priest gives the participants a pep talk. “Pope Francis is saying get out there,” he tells them. “And you guys are already there.”

It is no surprise that the project was started first at St Patrick’s. The parish, run by Father Alexander Sherbrooke, is seen as one of the most dynamic in London. Among its activities, its soup kitchen feeds 80 or so homeless people twice a week. It also runs a prayer group for addicts and a year-long residential course about the Catholic faith.

I arranged to meet Father Sherbrooke, a tall, imposing man with a slight stoop and bushy eyebrows, a few weeks earlier. He is a little gruff and, as he opens the door, demands to know why I am so early. We talk over tea and Mini Snickers bars, which he eats distractedly while explaining theology.

His parish, he explains, is centred on adoration — that is, praying in front of the exposed Eucharist in which Catholics believe Christ is present. This goes on in the church for up to ten hours a day. From the Eucharist, he says, “an avalanche, a crescendo of God’s love pours forth”. That is why Nightfever works, he suggests. It brings people into the presence of this love. “Who knows what miracles it’s going to work.”

Read the rest of the article here.

British watchmaking strikes again

This article was first published in the Life supplement of The Spectator on 30 November 2013.

A movement by the great Roger SmithA movement by the great Roger Smith

In a studio above the Clink prison museum near London Bridge, Richard Hoptroff shows me his latest invention: the world’s first atomic pocket watch. It’s more accurate than any other kind of watch, he explains gleefully, ‘by a factor of thousands’. He is making 12, each costing £50,000, though the atomic component is not of course something he can build in-house: it comes from a company called Symmetricom, which originally miniaturised it for use in drone missiles. Buyers must sign a form promising not to use their watches ‘as a weapon’.

Hoptroff, a scruffy-haired physicist who named his project Atom Heart Mother, after a Pink Floyd album, only got into watches in his thirties, when he had to wear one to learn to fly his new plane (previously he had been involved in tech start-ups — hence the plane). His other innovations involve Bluetooth technology and 3D laser printing. ‘We are doing things people haven’t imagined before,’ he says.

Hoptroff is one of several hardy entrepreneurs in Britain taking on the Swiss. They are a patriotic bunch, trying to make as much of their watches as possible.

Watchmaking, after all, is a British invention. Most of the early breakthroughs were British. In 1800 half the world’s watches were produced here. But by 1980, our industry had died. Its decline began in the 1890s, when British craftsmen, unlike their counterparts in America and Switzerland, failed to embrace mass production. Cheap electronic watches in the 1970s finished it off. Yet, while the industry collapsed, a passion for watchmaking lingered.

The pioneers of the revival are Nick and Giles English, two brothers from Norfolk. They gained a love of watches, planes and other mechanical things from their father, Euan. His death in a plane crash led them to quit their jobs in finance and, in 2002, found their company, Bremont (named after a farmer, Antoine Bremont, whose field they were forced to land in while flying across France).

Nick says they entered the industry without much idea of what they were in for. They’d never been to the watch show in Basel. ‘If we had and seen the 700 watch brands, it might have been different,’ he says. ‘Sometimes ignorance is best — we just went off and did it.’

Now, Bremont has a turnover of £11 million, and has just opened a branch in Hong Kong. Fans of its aviation-style watches include Tom Cruise, Orlando Bloom and Ewan McGregor.

The company wants to bring manufacturing back to England. At the moment it only assembles the parts here. Crucially, its movements — that is, the cogs, wheels and plates that make the hands tick — are made in Switzerland.

For many, that indicates the limits of the English resurgence in watchmaking. Until movements are made in Britain in any quantity, they say, we won’t properly have a watchmaking industry at all.

But plans are afoot. Bremont, according to Nick, is working on a movement which will be partly made in England. Another company, Meridian, set up last year, says it will have its own movements ready for next November.

English movements are being made — just in very small quantities. In a cottage on the Isle of Man about a dozen entirely English watches are produced each year. They represent the pinnacle of the watchmaking craft.

The story of these watches goes back to 1969. As the industry slowly collapsed, a lone genius from north London began making watches by himself — the first person ever to do so, mastering the 30 or so crafts involved. That watchmaker, George Daniels, who died in 2011, had only one apprentice, Roger Smith, who now continues the tradition with a team of six or so. The watches they are producing this year cost £172,000 each.

‘I know George’s work inside out,’ says Smith. ‘It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.’

Watch aficionados are in awe of these pieces. But they are not the only English-made watches around. Robert Loomes, an eminent watch and clock restorer in Lincolnshire whose family have been in the business since the 17th century, had his own way round the difficulty with movements. Instead of making them, he found unused ones, produced by Smiths, an English company, in the 1950s, which had been gathering dust in a warehouse. He built the rest of the watches around them.

There is limited scope to these — only 100 watches have been made so far. Indeed, out of all the British manufacturers only Bremont is making more than a few hundred.

Mike France, co-founder of Christopher Ward, says Britain’s industry is unlikely ever to challenge the Swiss. But he suggests its small scale means it’s more nimble, able to adapt to change. With more investment in training, he says, it can ‘push the art of watchmaking forward’, taking the lead in terms of ideas.

‘Watchmaking is in our DNA,’ he says. ‘We just have to retain a realism about it.’