The Church in Korea


Universe Column for December 3rd 2006

by David Alton

The Holy See meticulously plans the momentous World Youth Days which during the Pontificate of Pope John Paul II became such an important part of the Catholic calendar.

They are a moment when young people come together to joyfully celebrate their faith; to renew their fidelity to their beliefs and their commitment to one another; and to reflect on God’s plan for each of them.

Last year, World Youth Day had providentially been scheduled for Germany and the newly elected Pope Benedict returned to his homeland, to Cologne, to greet the hundreds of thousands who had gathered.

In 2008,  the Pope will travel to Australia for the next WYD but no venue has yet been selected for the following World Youth Day, in 2011.

There is a very powerful case for considering the Orient and, in particular, the Korean peninsular.

Korea has the largest number of Catholics in Asia, only after the Philippines (which hosted WYD in the 90s). Catholic roots go deep as blood. Thousands have suffered for the faith, with thousands martyred.

In 1845, a young man, the first Korean-born priest, St. Andrew Kim, aged just 25 was arrested, stripped and decapitated.

Another was Peter Yu, aged just 13, who was tortured on 14 occasions. In his defiance he even picked up shreds of his own flesh and threw them before his interrogators. He was strangled in the prison in October 1839. 150 years later he would be canonised.

Pope John Paul II  described the church in Korea as “a community unique in the history of the church.”

Founded in the late eighteenth century the Korean Church is unique because it alone is the only local Church to have been founded solely by lay people. It was a church created without missionaries and  is a Church which continues to suffer and to inspire. What better source of inspiration for our young people today?

And their presence might also be a source of healing.

The Korean peninsular is still divided – as Germany was – in the aftermath of a cruel war sixty years ago and is the recipient of unbelievable hardships visited upon it by ruthless ideologies.

The people who live in the north and south of Korea are courageous, generous, cultivated and gifted. Their greatest desire is peaceful reunification and the emergence of a new Korea which is strong, free, and truly independent. We should help them achieve that objective.

Korea is in a region in which Christians have experienced terrible suffering and viscidities. Think of the Japanese martyrs of nearby Nagasaki; the underground Church in neighbouring China; or the millions of Christians who died for their faith in Russia, which also has a border with Korea.

What a fitting thing it would be for the Church to honour their sacrifice by bringing the flower of its youth to Seoul in 2011.

Less than 3% of Asians are Catholics. The WYD is famous for inspiring vocations to the religious life and to the priesthood. Who knows what fruits would come from seed planted in this fertile soil?

But beyond the future and the past remains the present.

Northeast Asia is a region whose wounds from war are still bleeding – evidenced by the recent testing of a nuclear weapon by North Korea.

Meanwhile, China cannot forgive Japan for the atrocities of World War II; Korea cannot forgive Japan for the even worse atrocities inflicted during the sixteenth and twentieth centuries; and Japan seems incapable of understanding the hatred of its neighbours.

While it may seem that no human power can heal these wounds, God can do what politicians are unable to do. Happily, young Catholics find it easy to love one another regardless of whether they are Chinese, Japanese or Korea: and herein lies the real hope for the region.

The Cardinal Archbishop of Seoul, Nicholas Cheong Jinsuk, said earlier this year that he would do everything possible to have Korea host the World Youth Day in 2011. He called for help with translators and for creating a suitable infrastructure for the WYD. This is a challenge to which we should respond with generosity and conviction. The Cardinal may be reached at Chung-u Myong-dong 2-gal, Seoul 100-022, Republic of Korea.  World Youth Day, 2011, seems like a project worth getting behind.

To learn more about the history of the church in  Korea see “The Korean Martyrs” by Canon Richard Rutt, published by The Catholic Truth Society.