Church in South Korea growing, slowly
Korean Catholics attend Mass at the Seosomun Shrine in Seoul City on Sept. 14, 2018. ROY LAGARDE
KOREA— 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.
First in Asia, Vatican declares Seoul as int’l pilgrimage site
By Roy Lagarde
October 2, 2018
Seoul, South Korea
The Vatican has authorized official pilgrimage visits to Seoul, a city laden with memorials dedicated to thousands of South Korea’s martyrs.
The decision has placed Seoul on the list of official Catholic pilgrimage sites issued yearly by the Holy See, the first one in Asia.
It is expected to increase religious tourism to Seoul, as Christian pilgrims from around the world choose from the list of pilgrimage destinations.
The formal recognition was held on Sept. 14 with a Mass presided by Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung of the Seoul archdiocese at the historical Seosomun Shrine.
The site is an important place in the history of the Church in Korea because it is where hundreds of people, including 44 who were declared saints, were martyred.
Also in attendance were Archbishop Rino Fisichella of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, Papal nuncio to South Korea Archbishop Alfred Xuereb, and several Asian church leaders including Archbishop Romulo Valles of the Philippines.
In his message, Fisichella said that the Christian community has many pastoral means available “in order to favor the acceptance of the gift of faith which is our response” to God’s calling.
“Of these the Church in Korea holds in high esteem the pilgrimage routes associated with Korean martyrs as a tangible means to discover or to come to know better the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said.
Touted as the “Camino de Santiago of Asia”, the Seoul pilgrimage routes cover a 44.1 km-long road that starts from Myeongdong Cathedral to the Samseongsan Holy Ground.
Archbishop Fisichella said the Vatican is convinced that Seoul’s pilgrimage routes “is an effective way for the Church in Korea to honor the memory of her martyrs”.
“These routes can help not only pilgrims coming from Asia and all over the world, and whoever else choses to walk them, to reflect on the fact of human life laid down out of love and to open their hearts to the transforming power of God’s grace which bestows the gift of faith,” he said.
Valles, who took part in a “Pilgrimage Week” celebration that started on Sept. 10, said he was inspired by the deep faith of the Korean people.
“I hope that we get connected as Asian people especially the Philippines. I’m sure that they can learn from us and we can be inspired by the faith of the Korean people as well, especially manifested by the lives of these martyrs,” he said.
Committed to promote the religious tourism, the Seoul Metropolitan Government has unveiled tour programs approximating the pilgrimage sites with neighboring tourist attractions.
Ju Yong-tae, head of Seoul’s tourism and sports bureau, said that world pilgrimage destinations, such as Spain’s Camino de Santiago, are attracting tourists to contribute to the revitalization of local tourism industry.
“As we are expecting a lot of tourists in Seoul following the Vatican’s official authorization, we would like to develop the pilgrimage routes in Seoul into a global tourist attraction,” the official said.
“Seoul Pilgrimage Routes have a lot of unique storytelling elements based on a history of persecution and martyrdom and a voluntary process in propagation without the presence of missionaries, and therefore has a very high potential as tourism resource,” he added.