SEOUL, South Korea — From the celebrities accounted as adherents, to nuns, to the president and his parish, the Catholic Church in Korea is alive and purposeful.
When Korean “K-pop” megastars Rain, 35, and Kim Tae Hee, 37, announced their engagement last year, all details were secret — except plans to marry in the Catholic Church.
Among the couples’ shared gigs was a music video, with some 20 other young Korean celebrities, greeting Pope Francis, who visited Korea on his first Asian trip in August 2014.
Like the majority of new Catholics, Rain was baptized as an adult. In 2016, 74% of all baptisms in Korea were of adults. Ten years ago, that percentage was 84%.
Now, the famous couple are true stars in the eyes of the Church: They had a baby girl four weeks ago — Rain announced the birth with the hashtag #blessed via Instagram — at a time when the Church is keen to encourage bigger families.
Korea’s birthrate is one of the lowest in the world, despite the fact that abortion is illegal.
“The low birthrate is a problem for the Church,” confirmed Father Paul Yoo, pastor of Hongje-dong Catholic Church in Seoul, attended by President Moon Jae-in and first lady Kim Jung- sook, a classical singer.
Father Yoo considers the nation’s education policy and the high expense of private tutoring as part of the explanation of the phenomena of one-child families.
But in so many other ways, a tour of Father Yoo’s parish — in a lower middle-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Seoul — helps explain why the Catholic Church in Korea is vibrant and admirably healthy.
At 5:30pm, the churchyard is bustling as families pick up children from aftercare and others arrive for a daily evening Mass.
At the well-attended Mass, one notices that most women wear white veils; the Sign of Peace is shared with deep, reverential bows to each other, rather than handshakes; and no donation baskets are passed, as it is considered indiscreet to collect money so publicly.
Father Yoo explains the parish is able to keep a strong accent on catechesis through the help of four women religious, who live in the church compound at a small convent: Two run an on-site kindergarten, while another manages Church outreach, including adult catechism.
Sunday school programs cover all school-age children, from elementary through high school.
South Korea has an abundance of women religious: There are approximately 10,170 sisters spread between 78 papal jurisdiction orders and 36 diocesan religious institutes. There are some 1,560 religious brothers.
To promote fellowship and raise funds for charitable work, volunteers run a full-service café, called Harang (“love of God”) on church grounds. Profits are used mainly to help support local poor and the elderly, including nonparishioners.
At the altar and in the wider world, Hongje Church finds creative ways to engage the faithful: Father Yoo also offers family Mass to small groups of family and friends to draw them closer to the liturgy, he says.
Photos on the church website depict an impressive variety of activities: from all-male retreats to fieldtrips that women seem to favor, from Rosary devotions to food fairs.
Three Seoul parishes together sponsored a pilgrimage to Macau to walk in the steps of St. Andrew Kim Taegon, the nation’s patron saint.
Ordained in Shanghai, China, in 1845 as the first Korean priest, following seminary studies on the island of Macau (then a Portuguese colony), St. Andrew Kim returned home and was beheaded just a year later, at age 25 — martyred, as were his father and great-grandfather.
“The Gospel was brought to Korea by Catholic laymen who gathered at home and prayed and read the Gospel. There were no missionaries or priests,” explained Father Yoo.
In 1784, lay seekers, who had heard about the faith from China, sent a Confucian scholar to Beijing to learn more about Catholicism. He was baptized and returned to Korea with books for his companions, who spread the faith.
Within just seven years, the ruling Joseon dynasty banned Catholicism as threatening to Confucianism — the state religion — and traditions of ancestor worship. The ban was not lifted until 1895.
For almost 100 years, wave upon wave of persecution brutalized Catholic communities on the peninsula, in a bloody history memorialized by St. John Paul II in 1984, when he canonized 93 Korean martyrs and 10 French missionaries killed for the faith, too.
According to the Pope’s homily — delivered for the first canonization held outside Rome since the Middle Ages — some 10,000 Korean Catholics were martyred in the first 100 years of the Church’s life there.
Three years ago, Pope Francis beatified another 124 Korean martyrs. By all accounts, it is the Church in Korea’s lay foundation and history of tested conviction that still fuels its tenacity and fecundity today.
Another historical factor that fuels national respect for Catholicism — and converts — was the Church’s role in promoting democracy, especially against military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s.
The Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice (CPAJ), founded in 1974, was one organization determined to confront a series of regimes accused of corruption and abuse of power.
The Catholic Church encouraged student activists, explained Father Yoo, even giving sanctuary to some who ran afoul of the government and needed to evade arrest.
Catholic support for reform wasn’t just a local, parish-level phenomenon.
St. John Paul II listened to testimony from students while he was in South Korea in 1984. He encouraged them to persevere, even when they “run into a wall of incomprehension.”
An imprisoned student made a small statue of Jesus by grinding a toothbrush on the floor of his cell — the assembled youth gave the toothbrush Jesus to Pope John Paul II.
Thousands of Koreans were arrested under the dictatorship, which ended in 1992, when the first civilian president was freely elected.
Among the pro-democracy activists jailed was President Moon Jae-in, elected in May, when the sitting president was impeached for corruption.
President and Parishioner
One of the first things the new president did after taking residence at the presidential palace, known as the Blue House, was to ask Father Yoo to come and bless it.
“He is a devout Catholic and a remarkably unpretentious person, very down-to-earth,” observed Father Yoo, who invited the parish’s four religious sisters to accompany him for the special blessing.
The priest gave President Moon a photograph of a small boat with a single rower on a vast ocean: “There’s an old Chinese saying that a king is like a boat and the people are the water; if they get upset, they rise up and overturn the boat.”
Father Yoo hopes the president will seek reconciliation with the communist North, one of his campaign promises, which is also the Catholic Church’s stand on the preferred solution.
Catholics in Elite
Archbishop Hyginus Kim Hee-joong, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea, explained to the Register that a high percentage of Catholics are found in the country’s parliament (about 25%) and among the military leadership (about 35%).
Archbishop Kim confirmed that the Church’s history as being the product of a lay movement and its strong, public advocacy for democracy and its stand against authoritarianism have served to make it a much-admired institution.
Many Catholics have been exemplary citizens, such as Korea’s only Nobel Prize winner, former President Kim Dae-jung, who served 1998-2003. The statesman received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2000.
One 2015 poll found Catholicism is the most respected religion in South Korea, followed by Buddhism.
Protestant denominations certainly have strong followings, as well, although a series of scandals surrounding corruption at megachurches undermined the reputation of some pastors. Approximately 30% of the South Korean population of 52 million is Christian.
Bishop Emeritus Park Jeong-il of Masan, 91, who was born in the North but fled communism in the 1950s, thinks Koreans developed a positive outlook on Christianity because so many Church organizations fed and cared for refugees and displaced people during and after the conflict.
“Christians were a picture of God’s love,” he told the Register at Seoul’s main seminary, where 217 priests are in formation. “Now we have enough vocations to offer priests to serve in other countries.”
Last year, there were 1,045 Korean priests and women religious serving abroad, with the largest groups living in China (95), the Philippines (91), France (49), Italy (42) and Vietnam (40).
Those in China are largely concentrated in the northeast (where Jilin Province includes the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, with a majority of ethnic Koreans), as well as with communities of Koreans now living in Beijing and Hong Kong.
Not only are ties growing between the Korean Catholic Church and the Church in China, but Korean clerics increasingly talk about improving trust and relations regionally in order to secure peace.
“Our diplomacy has suffered from the loss of independence,” observed Father Yoo, in reference to the dominant U.S. influence in the South.
Every Catholic cleric I talked to (including bishops and the cardinal) said overtly or subtly that the dominant US. influence has caused an anemic Korean diplomacy.
“We need to establish trust … through regional diplomacy, and we are already working on this,” confirmed Archbishop Kim. “Nothing is impossible for us, with God.”
Senior Register correspondent Victor Gaetan is an
correspondent and a
contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine
the Washington Examiner.
Editor's Note: This article is part of a series on the state of the Catholic Church in Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.