The number of Catholics in South Korea increased by less than 50,000 in 2019, continuing a trend of slowing growth after a peak following the 2014 apostolic visit by Pope Francis to the country.
According to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea, there are 5.91 million Catholics in South Korea’s 16 dioceses; an increase of 48,000 over to 2018’s total. Catholics make up 11% of the national population.
Overall, the number of Catholics in the country increased by 0.8%, which is slightly lower than last year’s increase of 0.9%. In recent years, the Catholic population in South Korea has grown by an average of 1% each year.
Like many countries, South Korea’s Catholic population is aging. About one in five South Korean Catholics are over the age of 65, and only 8.5% of Catholics are age 19 or under. A total of 14% of priests are over the age of 65.
South Korea’s flock saw the largest overall percentage increase in 2014, when it increased by 2.2%. Pope Francis visited the country in August of that year, the third visit by a pope to the country. Pope John Paul II visited South Korea in 1984 and again in 1989, when the country hosted the 44th International Eucharistic Congress.
These numbers come as South Korea is grappling with an outbreak of COVID-19, a disease which has seen much of its spread in the nation come from a single member of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. About half of South Korea’s nearly 11,000 confirmed coronavirus infections stem from “Patient 31,” a member of that church who did not abide by isolation rules after coming down with COVID-19.
The Catholic Bishops’ Association of Korea refers to Shincheonji Church of Jesus as a “pseudo-religious organization” and a “cult.” The church was founded in 1980 by a man who believes that he is the second coming of Jesus.
In 2017, the conference created the “Korean Catholic Task Force on Newly-risen Religions” specifically to combat the growing popularity of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus.
Another source of outbreak were 30 Catholic pilgrims who tested positive for the illness after returning to South Korea from a trip to the Holy Land. Korean Air Lines restricted travel to Israel after these infections were discovered.
South Korea suspended the public celebration of Mass in late February, and re-opened churches–albeit with strict social distancing requirements–on April 26.
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