When Pope Francis embarked on the first visit of a pontiff to Asia since 1999, the choice of South Korea, a relatively small country on the Pacific Rim, was greeted with surprise. But he went there in 2014 because of its potential for the evangelisation of Asia and its growing role in global Catholic mission.
The Korean Church has borne outstanding witness in the turbulent history of the past 250 years on the peninsula. During its first century the Church experienced repeated persecutions which not only decimated the community but also exiled the Church to the margins of society. Pope Francis beatified 124 martyrs (in addition to 103 canonised by Pope John Paul II in 1984).
More recently the Catholic Church played a major role in the struggle for civil rights and democracy in the 1980s and 1990s. Its martyr history has given the Korean Church special identification with the poor and suffering and a willingness for self-sacrifice. In addition to its own social service, the Church today delivers half of the government’s welfare programme.
Furthermore, the Korean Church has taken its own initiatives in global mission. The Korean Mission Society, founded in 1975, has trained and sent out more than 70 priests to Papua New Guinea, Taiwan, China, New Zealand, Cambodia, Russia and Mozambique. Altogether nearly 200 South Korean priests are engaged in mission to foreign nations and a further 400 are serving Korean communities overseas. These figures are likely to continue to rise owing to a surplus of priests. A further 700 Koreans – mostly Sisters – are serving overseas with missionary congregations.
Since the 1990s, the Vatican has been encouraging the Korean Church to take responsibility for evangelising the rest of Asia. Not only the quality of its witness but also practical considerations lie behind this. At more than 10 per cent, Catholics make up a larger proportion of the population than in any Asian country except the Philippines. Thanks to its economic “miracle”, South Korea’s five million Catholics, who have above average socio-economic status, are able to fund missions generously.
Other reasons for making South Korea a centre for global mission are cultural. For example, it has exceptionally high levels of education and its seminaries train priests from many other countries. More broadly, the country already exercises soft power in much of Asia. Korean music, soaps, fashion and films have a strong following, especially in China. The influence of Christianity on South Korean society makes its media and cultural exports vehicles for Gospel values such as human dignity and equality.
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