South Korea will soon be blessed with a visit from Pope Francis. The highlights of the Aug. 14-17 trip include the beatification of 124 martyrs and the celebration of the closing Mass for the Asian Youth Day, where the pope will preside.
The experience of the Catholic Church in Korea has been nothing short of extraordinary, containing both tragedy and great joy. Here are five key points worth knowing about our Korean brothers and sisters:
- South Korea has the fourth largest number of saints of any nation on earth. Much of this can be traced back to the vicious persecution between 1788-1885 when, for almost 100 years, Catholics were tortured and often killed. Almost 10,000 Catholics died for their faith during this time.
- Korea is one of the younger Catholic countries in the world. Catholicism was only introduced in 1784 by a Korean man named Yi Seung-hun, who had been converted in China. He began baptizing interested Korean lay people, whose faith survived without the benefit of formal clergy until 1836, when a group of priests from the Paris Foreign Missions Society came to serve the fledgling faith community.
- South Korea contains one of the fastest growing Catholic Churches on the planet. In the last 10 years or so, the church has grown by roughly 70 per cent and today has about 5.4 million Catholics (about 11 per cent of the total population), 35 bishops, 4,261 priests, 9,016 female religious, 123 lay missionaries and 14,195 catechists. There are 395 minor and 1,489 major seminarians.
- By contrast, its neighbour North Korea is one of the most atheist countries in the world, with all official Catholic presence banned by law. Still, it is thought to harbour about 5,000 secret Catholics.
- Though Koreans have been largely shaped by Eastern religions, Christianity is larger than is generally known. When Catholics (11 per cent of the population) and Protestants (18 per cent) are put together, Christianity can argue it has the single largest number of religious adherents in the country. Buddhists, by comparison, are 22 per cent of the population.
But raw statistics don’t really do justice to the great passion for their faith displayed by Koreans over the centuries. The Catholic Church of Korea offers a shining example of the New Evangelization in action, giving hope to all Catholics the world over.
-Joseph Sinasac, Publishing Director