The Challenges Facing South Korea in Organizing the Next World Youth Day

WYD will confirm the Catholic communities in Asia in their faith.

A group of South Koreans pray at World Youth Day 2023 in Lisbon, Portugal.
A group of South Koreans pray at World Youth Day 2023 in Lisbon, Portugal. (photo: Almudena Martínez-Bordiú / ACI Prensa)

A Mexican missionary in South Korea, a priest from the Diocese of Seoul, and a woman religious from Korea who resides in Spain explained the expectations and difficulties of organizing the next World Youth Day in 2027 to ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner.

Father Ramiro Zúñiga has been working in South Korea for 24 years, where there is “a young, very lively Church, with many successes” from a vocational, economic and organizational point of view.

However, the Church also has “many challenges, because economic prosperity does not always entail spiritual well-being in the faith. For many people, economic security and the good life becomes one’s security where God is no longer needed.”

The “boom that occurred in the ’80s and ’90s, when there were hundreds of people baptized in each church” has subsided, just as “the number of children, adolescents and young people who attend Mass” has decreased, the missionary told ACI Prensa.

Father Yoo Sanghyuk, a priest of the Diocese of Seoul, explained that “about 10% of the total population of Korea is Catholic” and noted that, although their communities “grew rapidly during difficult times, they are now following the European churches” in a certain decline.

However, the Catholic Church “still has a good influence” in the country, he noted.

Sister Helena Oh Yun Geon, a missionary sister who resides in Spain, observed that despite not being numerous, “people respect Catholics very much and love priests and religious very much,” even though they do not profess the same faith.

This is due to their interfaith effort to work together especially for the rights of the poor and for peace around the world, but in a particular way for peace between North and South Koreans.

Father Sanghyuk acknowledged that, in Korea, “few people are aware of World Youth Day” and not many have experienced these encounters firsthand.

However, he sees that being designated the site of the next WYD is an opportunity “to spread faith in Christ” and confirm the Catholic communities in Asia in their faith.

The sister hopes that WYD will serve to show the unity and “the presence of the Catholic Church,” as well as showing Koreans “the joy of having faith.” In her opinion, “sharing faith with others and learning from each other will make us grow so that our faith is more alive, strong and open.”

Father Zúñiga, the Mexican missionary who, in addition to carrying out his apostolic work teaches Spanish at the National University of Seoul, believes that “there is great joy” over Korea being named the site of the next World Youth Day. In his opinion, it will also be a great occasion for the government and in general for national pride.

The organization of a massive event such as WYD involves great challenges of all kinds. Sister Helena stressed that it’s important to keep in mind that South Korea “is a very populous but small country.”

In Seoul, she remarked, “there’s a lot of traffic, a lot of people, a lot of workers.” So, “how can [the young pilgrims] easily get around in the city?” she wondered.

Another challenge to solve is the language barrier because people normally use Korean; and “although we study a lot of English, speaking it naturally is not easy.”

From another point of view, Father Sanghyuk fears, beyond logistical difficulties, the possibility of a certain lack of understanding: “I don’t know if society will understand the various inconveniences that will arise from World Youth Day because the number of believers is small.”

The pastoral perspective is focused on “reattracting youth so that they are protagonists of this preparation and its implementation, with the support of adults.”

Regarding the experience of the National Youth Day held in South Korea a few years ago, Father Zúñiga noted that the biggest problem “was hosting the boys and girls who came from other parts [of the country]” because the culture of providing hospitality in one’s own home “doesn’t exist anymore.”

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.