When Pope Francis embarked on the first visit of a pontiff to Asia since 1999, the choice of South Korea, a relatively small country on the Pacific Rim, was greeted with surprise. But he went there in 2014 because of its potential for the evangelisation of Asia and its growing role in global Catholic mission.
The Korean Church has borne outstanding witness in the turbulent history of the past 250 years on the peninsula. During its first century the Church experienced repeated persecutions which not only decimated the community but also exiled the Church to the margins of society. Pope Francis beatified 124 martyrs (in addition to 103 canonised by Pope John Paul II in 1984).
More recently the Catholic Church played a major role in the struggle for civil rights and democracy in the 1980s and 1990s. Its martyr history has given the Korean Church special identification with the poor and suffering and a willingness for self-sacrifice. In addition to its own social service, the Church today delivers half of the government’s welfare programme.
Furthermore, the Korean Church has taken its own initiatives in global mission. The Korean Mission Society, founded in 1975, has trained and sent out more than 70 priests to Papua New Guinea, Taiwan, China, New Zealand, Cambodia, Russia and Mozambique. Altogether nearly 200 South Korean priests are engaged in mission to foreign nations and a further 400 are serving Korean communities overseas. These figures are likely to continue to rise owing to a surplus of priests. A further 700 Koreans – mostly Sisters – are serving overseas with missionary congregations.
Since the 1990s, the Vatican has been encouraging the Korean Church to take responsibility for evangelising the rest of Asia. Not only the quality of its witness but also practical considerations lie behind this. At more than 10 per cent, Catholics make up a larger proportion of the population than in any Asian country except the Philippines. Thanks to its economic “miracle”, South Korea’s five million Catholics, who have above average socio-economic status, are able to fund missions generously.
Other reasons for making South Korea a centre for global mission are cultural. For example, it has exceptionally high levels of education and its seminaries train priests from many other countries. More broadly, the country already exercises soft power in much of Asia. Korean music, soaps, fashion and films have a strong following, especially in China. The influence of Christianity on South Korean society makes its media and cultural exports vehicles for Gospel values such as human dignity and equality.
Geopolitically, South Korea enjoys high global esteem and its citizens have freedom of movement, and yet its border with the North is the main security flashpoint in East Asia. Missiles were fired by the North on the very day of the Pope’s arrival, showing just how fragile the truce there is.
The Catholic Church was one of the foremost supporters of an independent, democratic South Korea in the 1940s. The growth of Christianity in South Korea is the flipside of the persecution of Christians and human rights abuses by the communist regime in North Korea. Korean missionary activity is driven partly by the desire to share religious freedom and partly by the hope of a world peace that would lead to reunification with North Korea.
Although South Korea looks small on the map of Asia and its 50 million people are only a tiny proportion of its vast population, it appears as a foretaste of the evangelisation of the whole continent. Its history is symbolic of Pope Francis’s agenda as set out in his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). It is “a Church which goes forth” with a profound “mission spirituality”.
After persecution, 35 years of Japanese occupation and the Korean War (1950-1953), the South Korean Church knows what it is to be “a poor Church for the poor” and it has a strong social dimension to evangelisation. Pope Francis beatified the martyrs on Korea’s national day, the anniversary of its liberation from Japan in 1945, because the martyrs are also seen as nationalists freeing Korea from unjust rule.
Perhaps the most telling symbol is the unique foundation of the Korean Church: it dates its birth from the formation of a community of baptised lay people in 1784 – before the arrival of any missionary or bishop. John Paul II affirmed this community as a “fledgling Church”. Francis went further in beatifying martyrs from before the establishment of the apostolic vicariate (1831). The Korean Catholic Church is a whole Church in mission – a Church of “missionary disciples”.
Kirsteen Kim is Professor of Theology and World Christianity at Leeds Trinity University, and is co-author of A History of Korean Christianity, published in 2015 by Cambridge University Press
This article first appeared in the November 11 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here