SEOUL, South Korea — With an increasing number of faithful, the Catholic Church in South Korea may foster a climate of reconciliation and peace, as the nation has reportedly made a deal with North Korea to avoid military escalation following days of fire exchanged.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported Aug. 24 that North Korea agreed to express regret over the injury of two South Korean soldiers by a landmine earlier in the month and that South Korea agreed to stop propaganda broadcasts via loudspeakers located on the border between the countries.
The Catholic Church has grown significantly in South Korea since the Korean War ended in 1953, and its presence may be important in nurturing a culture of reconciliation, which was one of the main goals of Pope Francis’ visit to South Korea one year ago.
In 1960, there were some 500,000 Catholics in South Korea — less than 2% of the population. In the nation, there are now 5.5 million Catholics, who constitute 11% of the population.
Pope Francis visited South Korea Aug. 13-18, 2014. Among the trip’s goals was the promotion of reconciliation between North and South Korea, which are officially in a state of war, since the Korean War ended with only an armistice.
During his trip, Pope Francis said a Mass for peace and reconciliation in the Cathedral of Myeong-dong in Seoul. The fact that the Mass was held in the Seoul cathedral was meaningful, as the archbishop of Seoul is also apostolic administrator of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.
Pope Francis asked South Koreans during his homily to “bear convincing witness to Christ’s message of reconciliation in your homes, in your communities and at every level of national life.”
The Pope added: “I am confident that, in a spirit of friendship and cooperation with other Christians, with the followers of other religions, and with all men and women of goodwill concerned for the future of Korean society, you will be a leaven of the kingdom of God in this land.”
During the trip, Pope Francis also called on Asian countries that do not have diplomatic ties with the Holy See to “start a dialogue among brothers,” since “Christians do not come as conquerors.”
This way, Pope Francis showed the twofold aspects of the Holy See’s commitment to Korea: the missionary and catechetical effort, which aims at fostering and nurturing the seeds of a reconciled society within Koreans themselves; and the hope of strengthening diplomatic ties with North Korea, which is among the few countries without diplomatic ties with the Holy See.
Pope Francis’ strategy to reach out to North Korea is a “diplomacy of martyrs,” which is related to his idea of an “ecumenism of martyrs.”
In North Korea’s case, the news was spread during the papal trip that North Korea could have its first canonized saint, Bishop Francis Hong Yong-ho of Pyongyang, whose death was officially acknowledged by the Vatican in 2013.
Born in 1906, Bishop Hong was “disappeared” by the government in 1949. He had been appointed vicar apostolic of Pyongyang in 1944. When the Second World War ended, Korea was divided into a northern zone, occupied by the Soviet Union, and a southern zone, occupied by the U.S.
The two zones never reunited, and when the two countries of North and South Korea were formally established in 1948, many Catholics fled south to escape the communist regime. According to some data, by 1950, North Korea had killed or “disappeared” 166 priests and religious.
Since the kidnapping, the Vatican long failed to acknowledge Bishop Hong’s death, in order to show that the tragedy the Church suffered in North Korea was ongoing.
The 2013 decision to acknowledge the death was considered by Vatican observers who spoke with Catholic News Agency as an attempt to awaken the Catholics in North Korea and nurture a “reconciliation conscience” in society.
A Catholic presence in North Korea has been maintained as well as it can. One of the key figures is Father Gerard Hammond, an 82-year-old Maryknoll missionary who has lived in South Korea since 1960 and has made more than 50 trips to North Korea since 1995, bringing humanitarian aid.
Overall, Pope Francis’ presence in Korea last year fostered the Catholic presence in the South, which can also be of some benefit for the North.
In an interview with Catholic News Agency in August 2014, Thomas Han Hong-soon, former Korean ambassador to the Holy see, said that “South Korea is perhaps the only country in the world where the Catholic Church grows as much as the economy.”