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Sunday, August 17, 2014


IS SOUTH Korea “the Asian tiger” of the Catholic Church?

That question rises as Pope Francis ended his Seoul visit by presiding over the beatification of 124 Korean martyrs in the 18th and 19th centuries.

An economic dynamo, South Korea is “also afire with faith,” notes the Economist in a lead article titled: “Why South Korea is so distinctively Christian.” About 5.4 million of South Korea’s 50 million people are Roman Catholics. Perhaps 9 million are Protestants, of many stripes.

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Buddhists make up 23 percent of the population and Christians 18, percent, with Catholics constituting 11 percent. If present trends continue, 56 percent of Koreans could be Catholic by 2044, a Buddhist research institute forecasts.

This is particularly striking because Asia is mostly stony ground for Christianity. Spanish rule left the Philippines strongly Catholic. But Korea is less simple. Lay people were its first evangelizers. French missionaries arrived a century later.

Confucian monarchs in the first two centuries of the church existence brooked no rival allegiance. They executed most early converts. Korea ranks fourth globally today for quantity of martyrs.

Vatican beatified 79 of the victims in 1965 and another 24 in 1968. John Paul II enrolled all 103 in the calendar of saints during his 1984 visit to Seoul.

Part of Korean Catholic clout is 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. It continues to sustain charitable works for the needy. Both within and outside the country, it is a moral reference point.

Across the demilitarized zone, 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. North Korea fired test rockets just before the start of Francis’s visit.

Francis’s choice of cars surprised many in a country where big shots hit the streets in expensive luxury cars, AP reported. The pontiff boarded a “compact black Kia that many South Koreans would consider too humble a vehicle for a globally powerful figure.” Images of the smiling pope in his little car struck a chord online.

Francis took a high-speed train from Seoul to the city of Daejeon, where Catholic youngsters from 30 Asian countries were convened for the Asian version of World Youth Day. “Be a source of renewal and hope for society,” the pope urged.

About half of 100 Chinese who intended to attend an Asian Youth Day event had been arrested by Chinese authorities, Reuters reported. “Beijing rejects Vatican authority over its Catholics."

Francis’s message is a tough sell in South Korea, which grew from the rubble of of the Korean War of the 1950s into one of Asia's top economies, the Guardian noted. Many link success with ostentatious displays. Fierce competition for places at elite schools, starts as early as pre-kindergarten. The country has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

In such "outwardly affluent" societies, people often experience "inner sadness and emptiness," Francis said. This was akin to a cancer growing in society. “Upon how many of our young people has this despair taken its toll.”

“Blood of martyrs, seed of Christians,” Tertulian wrote at second century’s end. Economist made a bold forecast: “Given Korean Christians’ energy and tenacity, it is sure that one day the Pyongyang skyline will be as studded with neon crosses as Seoul’s.” When?

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on August 17, 2014.

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