Pessimists, looking at statistics, talk about the crisis, or decline, of the Church in Europe. But simply widen the horizon to include other continents, and a very different picture emerges. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 265 million Catholics in the world, and at the end of that century that number had jumped to 1 billion and 100 million, over four times more. It was thanks to missionary work that the most spectacular rise in the number of Catholics was seen in Africa, where in a hundred years they went from 2 million to 130 million.
In Asia, however, things are quite different: Asia is home to the majority of people in the world who have yet to encounter Christ, and Catholics make up only about 3% of the continent’s population. It was certainly awareness of this that prompted John Paul II to exclaim, “Asia: here is our common task for the third millennium.”
At the same time, it should be underlined that one Asian country, the Philippines, has a sizeable number of Catholics: more than 73 million (80% of the population), and another, South Korea, has seen extraordinary growth in its number of Christians. In the 50 years from 1960 to 2010, its total population rose from 23 to 48 million, while followers of Christ grew from 2% to 30% of the population. Catholics now make up 11% of Korea’s population. Since the 2000 Holy Year, the Church has been carrying out a program called “Twenty-Twenty Evangelization,” a plan for reaching 20% of the Korean population by the year 2020. We should emphasize that this impressive flourishing of Christianity is taking place in a country whose incredible economic progress has made it known as one of the “Asian Tigers.”
Asia’s importance explains why Francis, in the second year of his Pontificate, will twice make the long journey there: in August he will be in South Korea, and in January he will be going to Sri Lanka and the Philippines. The main reason for his South Korea trip is his participation in the 6th Asian Youth Day, to be held from August 13 through 17, but his program also includes the beatification of 124 Korean martyrs killed in the 18th Century during anti-Christian persecution, as well as a meeting with the Asian bishops at the Haemi Sanctuary, a visit to Kkottongnae where he will meet a group of disabled people, and, finally, a Holy Mass for peace and reconciliation at Myeong-dong Cathedral, in Seoul.
I recently spoke with Father Vincenzo Bordo, an Italian missionary who has spent 25 years in South Korea, about the Korean Church and Pope Francis’ upcoming visit.
Father Vincenzo, I’d like to start with some history. When was the Korean Catholic Church born?
Father Vincenzo Bordo: The Korean Catholic Church began about 200 years ago, through the efforts of a group of Korean laypeople who had been introduced to Christianity while they had been living in China. This new religion, with its universal message of peace and love, fascinated them, and they decided to be Baptized and thus become Christians. When they returned home to Korea, they began not only to spread this new faith, but actually to organize a Church, too, based on what they had seen in China. And so they chose some men from among them to become priests, and entrusted other ministries to others of their group, and thus to Korean Church was born: love for Jesus, and sincere and simple passion for the Christian community.
In the meantime they started communicating with Rome, and the Mother Church wisely dispatched missionaries to aid in this new community’s growth. Upon their arrival, a group of French missionaries, the MEP (the Parisian Foreign Missions) started “reorganizing” the Korean Church, by giving priests proper formation and sacramental ordination. Meanwhile there were several bloody persecutions of Christians, who were seen as a first wave of foreign invasion, resulting in the king’s prohibiting any contact with the outside world. Korea began to be known as the “Hermit Kingdom”: it deliberately closed itself off, to avoid any influence or invasions, which for centuries has been so detrimental to the country.
You have been in Korea for a quarter of a century. What kind of Church did you find, upon your arrival 25 years ago?
I arrived here in 1990. That was a time when the Korean Church was smaller in terms of numbers, but much more active; there was more participation in the Sunday Liturgy, and in parish life. Around 1990 about 80% of Catholics attended Sunday Mass! Today that number has fallen to 25-30%. Participation in liturgical and parochial life has fallen tremendously, due to the effect of a vast secularization to which not even the Catholic Church is immune.
You have been witness to the spectacular expansion of Christianity in Korea.
I’d like to cite some statistics: in half a century, from 1960 to 2010, the population grew from 23 million to 48 million people, the Christian population from 2% to 30% (Catholics make up about 11% of those; there are 4578 priests and 1540 seminarians).
How can you explain the great attraction Koreans feel towards Christianity? What do Koreans find in Christianity that they can find neither in Confucianism nor Buddhism?
There are certainly many different factors that have determined this huge and complex expansion. There are two major ones I’ll mention, one of a spiritual nature and the other more social. The Korean Church, as I was saying earlier, was founded on the blood of martyrs: around 10,000 or even more, and this sacrifice certainly has been a blessing to the subsequent generations of Christians. I also like to underline a more “social” aspect. Observing the statistics on Korea’s Christian growth, we can easily see that there was a tremendous surge after the 1960s and ‘70s. Korea had just come out of a fratricidal war against the North which not only had left millions dead on the battlefields, but which had left enormous moral and economic desolation. In those years that were characterized by misery and a harsh military dictatorship, the Catholic Church, with great prophetic courage, consistently sided with the people: with those who were suffering, and who were being persecuted politically. This contributed greatly to the marvelously positive image of the Church and Her dedicated leaders. All of this brought about a gradual call to Christianity and its universal values of peace, reconciliation, love, forgiveness: all values the nation deeply needed.
What are the key characteristics of Korean Catholicism?
Topping the list would be the fundamental role of the laity. This is a Church that was founded by laypeople, a unique example of this in Church history, and the laity are still a major strong point, in their commitment, passion and dedication. At the same time, this Church is extremely well-organized, in terms of structure and work.
The Pope will be taking part in the 6th Asian Youth Day, from August 13th through the 17th: this promises to be the focal point of his pilgrimage…
I seem to understand that Asian Youth Day is only a pretext, on the part of the Korean Catholic Church, for inviting the Pontiff to Korea, twenty-six long years since John Paul II’s visit, and to give a new stimulus to the entire Catholic community, and not only the Catholics, who – as I mentioned before – have been feeling society’s ever-rising secularization. From another angle, I believe that the invitation corresponds to a strong desire on the Pope’s part to start visiting the Asian Churches.
Can you explain the significance of the Pope’s other stops during his trip?
Every day, the Pope will visit a different sanctuary dedicated to martyrs: Seo So Mun, Solmae, and Haemi, and he will be beatifying 123 new Korean martyrs. In this way, he wants to remind us all that the Korean Church was founded on the blood of martyrs (over 10,000), and that today’s Church needs to have that same spirit of love and faithfulness to the Lord if She wants to keep growing and being a witness to God’s love for all of Asia.
Francis will meet twice with Asia’s youth, to underline the great importance he places on them.
Later, there will be the visit to Kkottongnae, which means “village of flowers,” and which is South Korea’s largest and most prestigious Catholic facility for accommodating the poor, homeless and handicapped.
The Pope wishes to demonstrate, even in Korea, his great love for those who suffer, society’s least ones, the abandoned.
Of course, there will also be a meeting with leaders from other religions, to highlight the importance of dialogue in Asia.
Before leaving, the Pope will celebrate a Holy Mass for reconciliation with North Korea: the separation of the two Koreas is a wound that is still open after 60 years, and that still bleeds in the heart of every Korean.
Since the Holy Year of 2000, the Catholic Church here has been developing the program known as “Twenty-Twenty Evangelization,” a project for reaching 20% of Koreans by 2020. How is this ambitious project being carried out?
Knowing the Koreans’ intelligence, strong will and enthusiasm, and their great capacity for marketing (the development of their industries being a shining example of this), I am convinced that the Church could reach this goal of 20% by the year 2000, thanks also to the Pope’s visit and his extraordinary popularity.
But this would only be a matter of statistics and façade because, if we analyze data from the Korean Church, we can see that there has been a strong downward trend in Sunday Mass participation (today it is 22%), and in faith life in general.
If the Korean Church wants to grow in quality and depth, She will need to take the values that Pope Francis will highlight on his visit and make them Her own: the martyrs’ love, passion for the poor, attention towards youth.
We cannot speak about Korea without mentioning the painful fratricidal war between Koreans (1950–1953) and the division between the South, today democratic, and the North, which is suffering under one of the harshest communist dictatorships in the world. In your opinion, will the Pope, who is so sensitive to injustice and people’s suffering, take time to mention the problem of the North’s persecution of Christians?
I wouldn’t know a sure answer to this question, but if we look at his passion for peace (the prayer meeting that took place at the Vatican between the leaders of Palestine and Israel testifies to this) we can’t exclude that he might hint at reconciliation of this painful wound that has torn the Korean peninsula apart. On the other hand, there are Korean leaders who are expecting something of the sort. I myself translated a letter from a Korean priest to the pontiff that dealt with this very request. I think, then, that the desire that this papal visit might serve as an impulse towards dialogue with North Korea is indeed present in the Korean people.
Catholicism in Korea
Roman Catholic missionaries did not arrive in Korea until 1794, a decade after the return of the first baptized Korean from a visit to Beijing. However, the writings of the Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci, who was resident at the imperial court in Beijing, had been brought to Korea from China in the 1600s.
Scholars of the Sirhak, or practical learning, school, it seems, were interested in these writings. Largely because converts refused to perform Confucian ancestor rites, the government prohibited the spread of Christianity. Some Catholics were executed during the early 19th century, but the anti-Christian law was not strictly enforced.
By the 1860s, there were about 17,500 Catholics in the country. There followed a more rigorous persecution, in which thousands of Christians died, which continued until 1884.
Papal Trips Outside of Italy
Brazil (July 22 to July 29, 2013)
Francis visited Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for World Youth Day in the only scheduled foreign trip for him in 2013. He drew 3.5 million young people to Mass at Copacabana Beach. During a vigil address, Francis urged the pilgrims not to be “part-time Christians.” The trip was previously scheduled for his predecessor, Benedict XVI, before his resignation.
Jordan, Palestine and Israel (May 24 to 26, 2014)
During his 3-day trip to the region, Francis visited Amman, Bethlehem and Jerusalem (May 24 to 26). The trip was announced during the Sunday Angelus on January 5, 2014. Francis arrived in Jordan on May 24 and after meeting with King Abdullah II, celebrated Mass at Amman International Stadium. During his trip, Francis prayed at the Israeli West Bank wall and also visited the Victims of Acts of Terror Memorial with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Francis concluded his tour by meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew I to continue inter-faith dialogue with the Orthodox Church.
South Korea (August 13 to 18, 2014)
Pope Francis will visit South Korea from August 13 to 18 on the occasion of the Sixth Asian Youth Day.
Albania (September 21, 2014)
Pope Francis announced in his Angelus address on June 15, 2014 that he would make a one day visit to the city of Tirana in Albania. He said: “With this brief visit, I want to confirm the Church of Albania in the faith, and bear witness to my encouragement and love for a country that has suffered for so long in consequence of the ideologies of the past.” This will be the first country in Europe Pope Francis will visit.
Sri Lanka, Philippines (January 2015)
Pope Francis will visit Sri Lanka and the Philippines January 13-17, 2015.
United States (August 2015)
Pope Francis will visit Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the United States, in August 2015 to celebrate the World Day of the Family.
Philippines (January 25 to 31, 2016)
Pope Francis will visit Philippines on January 25 to 31 on the occasion of the 51st International Eucharistic Congress
Argentina, Chile, Uruguay (July 2016)
Pope Francis will visit his nation and two neighboring countries during the bicentennial of the 1816 Argentine Declaration of Independence. The date was also selected to be after the 2015 presidential elections, to avoid interfering with them.
Poland (July 25 to 31, 2016)
Pope Francis will visit Krakow, Poland on July 25 to July 31 on the occasion of World Youth Day 2016. This was announced in 2013 at the end of the previous event.
Not yet scheduled visits
Pope Francis, on June 7, 2014, accepted an invitation to visit Mexico from Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto.