SEOUL, South Korea — Although Catholics make up only 11% of South Korea’s largely secular population, a convergence of events this year promises to raise the Church’s profile in the small Asian nation.
Tomorrow, Archbishop Andrew Yeom Soo-jung of Seoul will receive the red hat from Pope Francis, as he joins the College of Cardinals at the consistory in Rome.
Last week, the Vatican announced that the Pope has approved the martyrdom of 124 Koreans who were killed during persecutions in the 18th and 19th centuries, paving the way for their beatification.
And, later this year, Pope Francis may preside at those beatifications when he travels to South Korea for an August youth event as part of a larger Asian trip.
When the newly proclaimed martyrs are beatified, they will join the 103 Korean martyrs who were canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1984. An estimated 10,000 Korean Catholics perished in a century of purges, beginning in the late 1700s, by dynastic leaders who viewed Christianity as a foreign invasion opposed to the nation’s culture and traditions.
In addition to these high-profile events, the Catholic hierarchy in the divided country has gained national prominence in recent years by calling for reconciliation and eventual reunification of North and South Korea. The Korean bishops’ conference has a Commission for the Reconciliation of the Korean People, and, last year, Archbishop Yeom led a pilgrimage to the shrines associated with the 103 martyrs as part of a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the partition of Korea after the war in 1953.
As part of its continuing outreach North, this week, the Catholic Church is providing pastoral assistance during a rare family reunion program, in which families who were separated during the Korean War are allowed to meet one another at a government-approved site north of the border. Since the Catholic hierarchy was expelled from the communist nation of North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), the archbishop of Seoul has served as the apostolic administrator of the Church in that country.
These events have shone a positive light on Korea, which more often makes international news for the brutal tactics of the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, or the playful antics of YouTube sensation Psy, whose “Gangnam Style” music video about an upscale region of South Korea has gained nearly 2 billion views.
On Feb. 17, the United Nations released a scathing human-rights report warning Kim Jong-un, who recently executed his uncle and other relatives whom he thought could undermine his regime, that he may face charges of crimes against humanity. Among the charges against his regime are torture, rape, forced abortions, political and religious persecution and the starvation of populations.
In the report, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights said the North Korean government regards the spread of Christianity as a “particularly serious threat” because it “challenges ideologically the official personality cult and provides a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the realm of the state.”
A few days later, Catholic News Agency reported that a 75-year-old Christian missionary named John Short, who was with a tour group in North Korea, had been detained by the government, possibly for distributing Christian literature.
The New Cardinal: A Descendant of Martyrs
After he was named one of the 19 new cardinals, Archbishop Yeom attended a celebratory gathering at Seoul’s Myeondong Cathedral, where he said, “I will make efforts to realize Pope Francis’ vision of a Church toiling for the poor and those on the margins of society and to make it a Church serving the community. I think the Pope appointed me to the post to make me effectively carry out the mission of the Church.”
He later told the Vatican’s Fides News, “I would like to be a gentle shepherd who cares for every lamb of the flock, capable of holding together the whole flock.”
The archbishop, who is 70 years old and has been the head of the Seoul Archdiocese since May 2012, claims direct descent from Korean martyrs. He is a great-great-grandson of Peter Yeom Seok-tae and his wife, Kim Maria, who were killed for their faith in 1850.
“He comes from a very devout family with a long line of Catholics; two of his brothers are priests,” said Father Paul Lee, a pastor in Maryland, who has met the archbishop on a number of occasions during his annual visits to his homeland. “His being named a cardinal is a big event for Catholics and non-Catholics alike in Korea. The Catholics, of course, are very proud, and others see it as a prestigious honor for the country. There is a lot of positive feeling about this event.”
Father Lee was born in Seoul and attended college seminary there before moving to the United States with his family in 1979. He continued seminary studies and was ordained for the Archdiocese of Washington in 1983.
The newly proclaimed martyrs are known collectively as “Paul Yun Ji-chung and 123 companions,” who were killed in Korea between 1791 and 1888.
Commenting on the Pope’s declaration, Archbishop Yeom said in a statement, “Looking at the history, the Korean martyrs are great models of holiness who crossed the barriers of social status and loved their neighbor. ... They were promoters of human rights and had an important role in the history of the entire Korean nation.”
He also commented to Fides on Pope Francis’ possible visit to Korea, saying that a visit “would be a message of hope to all countries in Asia. We hope with all our heart that this happens. It would also give great motivation to the Korean Church to continue to work on the evangelization of Asia.”
Without confirming the details, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi has said that an apostolic visit to Korea is being considered to coincide with Asian Youth Day, to be held Aug. 10-17 in Daejon. After World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro last July, Pope Francis told reporters that he was anxious to visit Asia, since Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had not made a trip to the continent. The last papal visit to Korea was made by John Paul II in 1989.
A Growing Church
A visit by Pope Francis would be a boost to a Korean Church that already is vibrant and growing. In a population of more than 51 million in South Korea, there are some 5.2 million Catholics in 16 dioceses, most of them living in or near urban areas. In 2012, the Church grew by 1.6%, as nearly 85,000 Koreans became Catholic. There has also been an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life in recent years. Earlier this month, two auxiliary bishops and 38 new priests were ordained for Seoul.
Government surveys have shown that more than 45% of South Koreans practice no religion and that about 22% are Buddhists. Yet when Catholics (11%) and Protestants (18%) are combined, Christianity as a whole claims the largest number of religious adherents.
By contrast, Christianity is officially suppressed in North Korea under the communist regime, and unofficial estimates by South Korean Church officials place the number of Catholics there at only 5,000.
Korea is unique among Asian nations, in that Catholicism was introduced not by ordained missionaries, but by laymen who had learned the faith while traveling in China and Japan and brought catechetical and liturgical texts into their home country. The Catholic hierarchy was established 1831, when Seoul became an apostolic vicariate.
“The Catholic Church is growing, with many adult converts, especially among the educated classes, and they are young, professional people,” said Father Lee. “One reason is that the Church has been a very strong and consistent voice for the poor, the oppressed and the workers, and this has given the Church a great deal of credibility.”
One example is the 23-year-old Olympic champion skater Yuna Kim, who converted to the faith through the example of her doctor, a devout Catholic. On Feb. 20, at the Sochi Olympic Games, she added a silver medal to the gold medal she won four years ago in Vancouver.
When people see her make the Sign of the Cross before going on the ice, Father Lee said, “It is such a great witness that this hero of the nation is a very humble and devout Catholic.”
Father Lee said that despite South Korea’s reputation for fashion and materialism, “the people are searching for something more. They tend to have a very deep and mature spirituality that is well-fitted for Catholicism.”
Register correspondent Stephen Vincent writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.