Filipino Catholic youngsters will join delegations from 29 other Asian countries this week when Pope Francis launches the Sixth Asian Youth Day ceremonies in South Korea.
“This will be a dialogue with Asian youngsters in their own continent, where some 720 million of them live,” writes Han Hong-Soon, South Korea’s former ambassador to the Holy See. The visit’s motto—“Arise and shine”—is from Isaiah and underscores the role of the youth in transmitting their faith.
Francis will beatify, at an Aug. 18 Mass, 124 Korean martyrs from the Catholic Church’s first entry into this East-Asian nation in the 18th century. Lay people were its first evangelizers. French missionaries arrived a century later. That markedly differs from the Philippine pattern where priests landed with Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 in Cebu.
Over 10,000 Koreans were martyred for their faith in the local church’s first two centuries. In 1925, Vatican beatified 79 of them, and another 24 in 1968. John Paul II enrolled all 103 in the calendar of saints during his 1984 visit to Seoul. “Blood of martyrs, seed of Christians,” Tertulian wrote at second century’s end.
In South Korea today, Buddhists make up 23 percent of the population. Christians account for 18 percent, with Catholics constituting 11 percent. And 46 percent say they have no religion.
North Korea persecutes adherents of all faiths. Pyongyang “continues to severely restrict religious freedom for its people,” the State Department said in its 2014 annual report released late July. “Government bans all religious activity, except for officially recognized groups that it tightly supervises,” says the latest International Religious Freedom Report.
So do other countries, including Myanmar, China and Saudi Arabia. Francis has other martyrs on his mind. In Iraq, 100,000 Christians are now refugees from the new caliphate decreed by the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
The Korean Catholic Bishops’ Conference earlier expressed hope that Pope Francis’ visit to the peninsula will help relaunch the reconciliation process between the two Koreas. North Korea declined an invitation, sent by church officials in the South, to send Catholic believers to a reconciliation Mass to be offered by Francis on Aug. 18. In a letter, the North’s state-run Korean Catholics Association (KCA) cited Seoul’s refusal to cancel a military drill with US forces. “Coming to Seoul would be an agonizing step,” KCA wrote.
If present trends continue, more than half or 56 percent of the Korean population could be Catholic adherents by 2044, a Buddhist research institute forecasts. By then, “the Catholic Church could well be the largest religion in Korea in the near future.”
The world backdrop provides a needed context. Over the past century, the Catholic Church has shifted southwards, notes the New York Times. In the 1900s, two thirds of Catholics lived in Europe, symbolized by spires thrusting skywards from various religious shrines located in Notre Dame and Mont Saint-Michel and like places.
Since then, and especially since the 1960s, Catholicism has been moving south. Latin America’s Catholics will rise to 600 million within two decades. In Francis, Latin America has its first pontiff in over a millennia. But the number of Catholics in Africa have grown at a rate of 6,700 percent, says John Allen in his book “The Future Church.”
“In Western Europe, millions of Catholics are church members but only in the technical sense of having been baptized; they never darken the door of a church, and don’t support official Church policies on issues of morality or sexuality,” Philip Jenkins notes in “Gone South,” an article he wrote for the New Republic. “By 2050, according to projections, Africa will have far more Catholics than Europe with only 15 percent Catholics,” he says.
Jenkins also believes that the Catholic Church will remain the major player in the world’s spiritual economy but “The Vatican is now in the wrong location. It’s 2,000 miles too far north of its emerging homelands.”
Part of Korean Catholic clout is due to its leadership role in justice, human rights and other social issues that spun off from Korea’s rapid economic surge.
Under authoritarian regimes (1960s-1980s), the church stood on the side of the poor and the oppressed, promoting their human rights by words and actions, writes Ambassador Han. It continues to sustain charitable works for the needy. Thus, the church in Korea is recognized for “its prophetic role, both within and outside the country, as a champion of human rights, and a moral reference point in Korea.”
There is another unnoticed indicator: Since the 1980s the church in Korea has sent 834 missionaries abroad. A breakdown tallies 181 priests, 621 sisters and 32 brothers serving in 78 countries on all continents, Gerard O’Connell writes in an article titled “Korea Gets Ready to Welcome Pope Francis to Asia” in the Catholic magazine America. “So it has been transformed from a missionary-receiving to a missionary-sending church,” he adds.
Filipinos will see Francis close up when he visits the Philippines come January 2015. He asked that meetings with survivors of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” in Eastern Visayas and earthquake-devastated Bohol be given priority by a local church with emerging leaders more of his mould.
“Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness,” Francis says. “But a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey.”