South Korea's Catholic Church: Poster Child for a Fresh Pontificate -- Sightings (Timothy Lee)

Pope Francis continues to astound us with his message and his personality.  Although John Paul II was a charismatic and personable figure, Pope Francis has put on a much more accessible face to the papacy.  His message has upset some in the Roman Catholic Church and attracted the attention of many others both inside and outside that Church.  In this essay Disciples historian Timothy Lee, himself Korean, offers us a unique picture of Francis' appeal to the Korean populace, and notes that in Korea Evangelicalism, itself tarred with scandal, is in retreat.  It is an interesting picture that even gives one pause to think that perhaps the next Pope could be a Korean?  Take a read and offer thoughts.  

South Korea's Catholic Church: Poster Child for a Fresh Pontificate
Thursday | Sept 4 2014
Seoul, Aug. 11, 2014                         Photo: Jeon Han / South Korea's Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism
When Pope Francis visited South Korea in mid-August, he participated in the Sixth Asian Youth Day, consoled parents of teenagers who had perished in a capsized ferry, expressed solidarity with women who had been forced into sexual bondage by the Japanese military during World War II, beatified 124 Catholics who had been martyred in Korea in the 18th and 19th centuries, and held a Mass of reconciliation for the divided peninsula.

Media accounts played up the theme of the Korean Catholic Church as a poster child for Francis's pontifical agenda and style, and featured as a sidebar Evangelicalism's regression in Korea.

Especially noteworthy was the opinion piece written for CNN by Franklin Rausch, a historian who specializes in Korean Catholicism. In his essay, “Why is Pope Francis Going to Korea,” (see Resources below) Rausch argues persuasively that the Pope went to Korea because he sees the Korean church as a model he would recommend to others. It excels at engaging three key aspects of Francis’ agenda: evangelization, social justice, and lay participation.

Of the three, evangelization in South Korea, or church growth, has probably received the most news coverage. This is not surprising given the staggering growth of the Korean church during the past few decades. Since 1990, the number of Korean Catholics has doubled to 5.4 million, now comprising about 11% of the general population. Since 2008, the number of new priests, many of them young, has risen 17%. Also, the church operates the second largest Catholic missionary group, second only to the American church. South Korea has sent missionaries to about 80 countries.

As for the social justice aspect of his agenda, Pope Francis delivered a speech at the Blue House, the presidential residence, in which he urged South Koreans to seek ways to reunify with the North and to reach out to the poor and vulnerable. Francis reiterated his opposition to unfettered capitalism by praising the 124 martyrs who had sacrificed their social status and then their lives for the faith.

Francis’ concern for social justice has undoubtedly resonated deeply with the Catholics who led human-right and pro-democracy movements in South Korea in the 1970s and 80s, counting among their ranks icons such as late President and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Kim Dae Jung (1925-2009) and Cardinal Kim Sou-hwan (1922-2009).

Francis also emphasized lay participation in the church (and de-emphasized clericalism). The Korean Catholic Church was not founded by missionaries but by Korean laypeople who became enamored of Catholic doctrine. Of the 124 martyrs honored by Francis, all but one were laypeople, 23 of them women. The only exception was Father Jacob Zhou Wen-mo, the first ordained priest; of Chinese origin, he arrived in Korea in 1795. About five years later, Zhou was beheaded along with many in his flock.

During his visit, Francis remained true to his overall agenda and style. He refused to ride in large automobiles, upending the presumption in Korea that important people and big cars go together. Instead, he was driven around the country in a subcompact Kia Soul, which, of course, spawned puns such as “The Pope rode the Soul because he is full of soul.”

While most of the media coverage underscored the emergence of a refreshing pontificate, with the Korean Catholic Church as its poster child, a few stories dealt with Korean Protestantism. Predominantly Evangelical in character, Korean Protestantism has been larger than Catholicism in membership for most of the twentieth century. It used to be a poster child in its own right—of the church growth movement of the 1970s and 80s.

Since the 1990s, however, the Evangelical church has been regressing on multiple fronts, its total membership declining, its mega-church leaders embroiled in sexual and financial scandals. The latest census shows that between 1995 and 2005, the percentage of Evangelicals slipped from 19.7% (8.76 million) to 18.3% (8.12 million) of the population, and the trend is continuing. The Reverend Cho Yonggi, the former Senior Minister of Yoido Full Gospel Church, was convicted of embezzlement in February 2014. The prestige of Evangelicalism has fallen behind that of Catholicism and Buddhism.

No doubt, many an Evangelical gazed at their television screen wistfully on August 16, when Pope Francis, in front of hundreds of thousands of Catholic faithful, mounted the platform in Seoul to beatify the martyrs—a high point of a trip advertised with the motto “Rise Korea, clothe yourself in light, the Lord’s glory shines upon you.”

AP. “Pope Francis makes big impression with small car in South Korea.” TheGuardian, August 14, 2014.

Ball, Deborah, Jonathan Cheng and Jeyup S. Kwaak. “Pope’s Trip to Highlight Vibrant South Korean Church: Rising Number of Catholics Offers Hopes for Asian Growth.”Wall Street Journal, August 13, 2014.

Cheng, Jonathan. “Korea’s Self-Made Christians Get Their Moment.” Wall Street Journal, August 14, 2014, Blogs.

Choe, Sang-Hun. “Papal Visit That Thrills Catholics Is Unsettling Protestants in South Korea.” New York Times, August 16, 2014.

Gheddo, Piedro. “'Explosive' growth in S. Korean Catholics may be world’s fastest.”UCA News, April 19, 2012.

Moon, Ruth. “Founder of World’s Largest Megachurch Convicted of Embezzling $12 Million.” Christianity Today, February 24, 2014.

Rausch, Franklin. “Opinion: Why is Pope Francis going to South Korea?” CNN.COM, August 12, 2014.

Reuters. “Pope Francis Denounces Wealth Gap in Open Mass.” Asiaone, August 16, 2014.

Ro, Bong-Rin and Marlin L. Nelson, eds. Korean Church Growth Explosion. Taichung, Taiwan: Word of Life Press, 1983.

Rocca, Francix. “In South Korea, Pope Calls for Peace, Democracy, and Social Justice.” Catholic, August 14, 2014.

Photo Credit: Jeon Han / South Korea's Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism
Author, Timothy S. Lee, (Ph.D. UChicago, 1996) is Associate Professor of the History of Christianity and Director of Asian (Korean) Church Studies Program at Brite Divinity School (TCU). He is the author of Evangelicalism in Korea (University of Hawaii Press, 2010) and co-editor, along with Robert E. Buswell, of Christianity in Korea (University of Hawaii Press, 2006).

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.

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