South Korea, a Land of Dynamic Catholicism, Awaits Pope Francis

The Holy Father’s Aug. 14-18 trip will be the first papal visit since Pope John Paul’s in 1989.

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ apostolic voyage to South Korea will be the first papal visit to Asia in just over a decade.

The Holy Father is making the Aug. 14-18 trip for two principal reasons: to attend the sixth Asian Youth Day and to beatify 124 Korean martyrs who were among 10,000 mostly lay Catholics killed in successive waves of persecution in 19th-century Confucian-dominated Korea.

But the visit, which has as its theme “Arise, Shine (Isaiah 60:1),” will also serve a number of other purposes that include encouraging the rapid growth in faith in the country and parts of the continent; giving hope to those suffering economic and other hardships; and promoting peace and reconciliation, both internally and between North and South Korea.

“The Korean Church is the first Asian Church to welcome Pope Francis,” noted Father Matthias Young-yup Hur, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Seoul. “Through this meaningful event, the Korean Church will become the door to the evangelization of Asia.”

South Korea’s Catholics are some of the most dynamic in the region. Although still very much a minority, in just 25 years, the number of Catholics has soared from 1.5 million to 5.4 million, out of a total population of 51.2 million. Over the past decade, the number of Catholics has grown by 70%.

Various reasons have been given for this rapid growth, including the Church’s role in the democratization of South Korea, its active participation in various works of social welfare and its respect for interreligious dialogue and traditional Korean spirituality.

“The Catholic Church in South Korea is strong on social justice and human rights, so many Koreans, Catholic and non-Catholic, naturally favor Catholicism,” Father John Kim Jong-su, rector of the Pontifical Korean College in Rome, told the Register.

Many hope the Pope’s visit will provide a boost in vocations and conversions. “I expect many Koreans will want to try to imitate the Pope,” Father Jong-su said. “After the visit, we hope there will be more vocations, but the numbers are high already.”

St. John Paul II visited the Korean Peninsula for a Eucharistic congress in October 1989. He also made a trip to South Korea in 1984, when he canonized 103 Korean martyrs.

The last time a pope visited Asia was 2002, when John Paul II visited Azerbaijan.


‘An Inspiring Exemplar’

But both Church and society are, of course, not without their problems.

Bishop Peter Kang U-il, president of South Korea’s bishops’ conference, noted the country has long suffered “vast hardships and persecutions,” but these could be “an inspiring exemplar for the Churches of the world in trouble and despair.”

He added in a message on the official visit website that Korea has experienced “rapid economic and social development and now is struggling with the conflicts surfacing from increased social polarization.” The Church, he said, echoing the call of Pope Francis, must “go beyond itself to meet the world, in all its joys and sorrows, with the Gospel.”

Expanding on the nation’s internal problems, Father Hur told the Register that Korean society “is filled with the problems of the gap between rich and poor and the ideological difference between the progressive and conservative party.” These divisions, he said, have caused “anxiety and chaos in our society,” which, he added, have also made their way into the Church.

“More and more, people are facing a faith crisis,” he said. “We hope that the Holy Father’s visit to Korea would become an opportunity for us to learn to overcome these differences and to coexist harmoniously in the love of Jesus.”


North-South Tension

Beyond internal problems are, of course, the long-running tensions between North and South Korea. The Church has historically been at the forefront of trying to heal the divisions.

“It is the mission of the Korean Church to work towards the reconciliation and unification of our country,” said Father Hur. “We believe humanitarian support and sincere conversations are the most necessary,” he added, and pointed out that the Church has continued to give humanitarian support, “even when the North-South relation becomes tense.”

After the Second World War and liberation from Japanese occupation, the Korean Peninsula was occupied by the Soviet Union in the North and the United States in the South. The North later chose to remain communist, and resulting tensions led to the 1950-1953 Korean War. Both states are technically still at war, as fighting only ended as a result of an armistice.

Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung of Seoul, recently said Koreans are hoping the papal trip will produce a “miracle” for the peninsula, helping both countries to enter into dialogue. Many are hoping the Pope will repeat his "Invocation for Peace for the Holy Land," this time praying for an end to tensions between the Koreas.

“All people hope that it’s an occasion to open and advance dialogue between the two Koreas, seen from the Pope’s perspective,” said Father Jong-su. “His visit is bringing the hope for peace on our peninsula.”

For Father Hur, “Korea is a country which symbolizes the world’s need of peace and reconciliation,” and so the visit of the Holy Father “may bring an important message of hope and peace to our country.”


Beatification of Korean Martyrs

The Pope’s beatification of the 124 Korean martyrs will also be highly significant. The spread of the faith in the country is largely due to the thousands who gave their lives for the faith. And, unusually, most of them were laypeople rather than clergy.

“To all the Korean Catholics, the martyrs are great models of faith, who sacrificed their own lives for their strong belief,” said Father Hur. “Nowadays, frankly speaking, it is difficult for us to imagine ourselves dying for religion; but the beatification of martyrs gives us an opportunity to reflect on our faith and to think what we can do to sacrifice for our faith.”

Church officials have been busy preparing for the visit: In April, an organizing committee held a three-day meeting at the Vatican to discuss all issues related to the trip. And to help spread the message of the Pope throughout the country, more than 20 Korean Catholic celebrities have come together to make a music video honoring the Pope’s arrival.

The Holy Father faces an intense program, including celebrating Mass on Aug. 15, the feast of the Assumption, in Daejeon for those attending Asian Youth Day. The next day, he will visit the Shrine of the Martyrs of Seo So mun, after which he will celebrate the beatification Mass of Paul Yun Ji-Chung and his 123 martyr companions. Following the Mass, the Pope will visit with the disabled in the “House of Hope” rehabilitation center in Kkottongnae and then meet the leaders of the lay apostolate in the city’s the Spirituality Center.

On Aug. 17, he travels to Haemi, where he will meet with the Asian bishops and have lunch with them in the Haemi shrine. Afterward, he will celebrate the concluding Mass for the Sixth Asian Youth Day.

Before leaving on his final day in South Korea, Pope Francis will meet with various religious leaders and celebrate Mass for peace and reconciliation in the Myeong-dong Cathedral of Seoul. He will then participate in a farewell celebration at the city’s air base and depart for Rome, where he will arrive close to 6pm on Aug. 18.

For more information on the papal voyage, go to

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.