2009-08-25 16:27
2015-03-05 17:25
Catholic Church in Korea Growing and Rejuvenating

Catholic Church in Korea Growing and Rejuvenating


1. Context of the Times

    In the contemporary history of Korea, the 1980's era was opened with the Gwangju democratization movement of May, 1980. This movement is a watershed event in the understanding of modern Korean history. Since the military coup led by Chun Doo-hwan the dictatorial rule of the military regime was imposed continuously upon the Korean people. People fought to overthrow the military regime. Anti-government protests by dissidents, students and workers were held almost daily and some of them denounced the regime by burning themselves to death.
    The government clamped down on the anti-government movements and tried to control them with its hard line policies. Students and dissidents were arrested and tortured. Some activists went missing and died mysteriously. In such an atmosphere the anti-government movement grew strong and became so intense that the government had to accept part of their demands.
    With regard to the Gwangju democratization movement many young people and intellectuals claimed that the United States of America were involved in the affairs and gave legitimacy to the military regime. For this reason they were determined to oppose the United States of America by pointing out the problematic points in their policy for Korea.
    While domestic politics were becoming more and more closed and oppressive the international politics were moving toward an era of detente. China attempted to introduce a new economic system which was a mixture of socialist and capitalist economies as it entered the 1980's and sought to come out from the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution. Meanwhile in Eastern Europe the Communist rule was challenged in many places. This was confirmed by the establishment of a non-communist government in Poland in 1989 and the declaration of the end of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.
    While these international changes were taking place some changes happened in North Korea too. The North Korean Catholics' Association was founded in 1988 and declared that it would speak for North Korean Catholics and be their advocate. As well as this an exchange between the two Koreas of the South and the North through the Red Cross was realized even though their overall relationship had not improved much from what it had been during the Cold War.


2. Church Speaks to Society

     In the 1980's, depending on the conditions at the time, the Church continued to make its position known to Korean society and tried to strengthen its inner life. The Church's voice continued to be heard in society even after the Gwangju democratization movement. In July of 1980, some clergy and lay people who tried to reveal the truth about the massacre that occurred during the democratization movement were arrested and tortured by the military authorities. In 1982, an anti-US activist set fire to the US Cultural Center in Busan and he sought refuge in the Church. A priest who tried to help the activist and to mediate in the situation was arrested. The Permanent Council of the Bishops' Conference of Korea made clear its position and said that "the priest's action was merely an effort to seek the best solution to the problem." However the case went to the court and the priest concerned was given a prison sentence.
    By 1986, a majority of Catholics supported for and participated in the campaign for Constitutional revision calling for a direct presidential election. A signature-seeking campaign for the Constitutional reform was carried out in all the Churches across the country. The Church's opinion was broadly supported by all the walks of society and as a result, their demand was achieved. Also, the Catholic Farmers' Movement struggled to solve problems in their farming communities resulting from the military government's agricultural policy.
    The anti-government struggle reached its peak in 1987. At that time government investigators tortured a student activist to death and tried to cover up the incident. This led the Priests Association for Justice to launch a nation wide protest campaign to disclose the truth. At that time, most of the Korean people thought that the Korea Broadcast System(KBS), that is publically financed, was merely a propaganda tool of the government and so playing a leading role in the distortion of facts. To demonstrate the opposition the Catholic Church in Jeollabuk-do launched a campaign asking Korean people to refuse to pay the TV license fee. This campaign expanded rapidly across the country and gained the full support of the people. As a result the KBS had to change its position.
    The 1980's was a time marked by civilian efforts to improve the hostile relationship between South and North Korea. In this context Susanna Im Su-kyeong, a Catholic college student, challenged the National Security Law. She went to North Korea to meet her North Korean counterpart and discussed various issues regarding the reunification of Korea. The Priests Association for Justice, assuming there may happen trouble as a result, sent Father Paul Mun Kyu-hyeon, a priest of the Priests Association for Justrice, to North Korea to protect her and bring her back to the country safely. This provoked a serious social problem. On their return to South Korea through the Demilitarized Zone(DMZ) of Panmunjeom they were immediately arrested and put in jail. People's opinions and evaluation of their conducts were different.
    During that period some clergy and the faithful were still critical to the Church's social involvement and had different opinion. However the Church leaders and intellectual groups wanted to justify the social participation of Catholics from a view point of social teaching of the Church. This enhanced support of Korean people for her social stance. For the Korean people, the Catholic Church was a symbol of the conscience of Korean society. During this period of social upheaval, the Catholic Church gained much recognition and support from the Korean society. These were some of the characteristics that marked the history of the Catholic Church in the 1980's.


3. Growth and Development of the Church 

    In the 1980's, the annual growth rate of Catholics was 7.54% which was a twentyfold increase compared to the 1960's and 1970's and much greater than that of the Protestant Churches or other religions. In 1989, Catholics numbered 2,610,000 or 6 percent of the population. However from the 1990's the increase rate of Catholics has been relatively slow-downed and increase rate in 1997 recorded only 3.2 percent with total 3,676,211 faithful or 7.9 percent of the population. The major impetus for this rapid growth was the general situation of the Korean society at the time when human rights abuses were rampant and when the process of industrialization and urbanization led many people to the social alienation. In such a context people sought out the faith to establish their self-identity and to find an explanation to the realities at the time.
    Another reason why many sought out the Catholic Church was because it showed a greater determination than other religions in the efforts to realize social justice and to improve human rights of the oppressed. We also have to note that Korean society is a multi-religious society and that half of the population practically have no religion. Therefore the majority of new comers were able to become Catholics without having to go through a process of religious conversion. This can be seen as a cultural element that is different from that of other countries.


4. Characteristics of Korean Laity

    The Korean laity of today has been firmly committed to voluntary service within the Church. Thanks to their dedication many great ecclesiastical events were realized. One of them is the 44th Seoul International Eucharistic Congress in 1989. They have even gladly accepted the financial responsibility for most of the events and committed themselves in various activities for evangelization. However since the 1980's the Church in Korea has gradually become a Church of the middle class. The intellectual level of Catholics in general was much higher than that of the average Korean people. The majority of them lived in large cities and adjoining areas. Many Catholics could be found in administrative or professional occupations. The average monthly income of Catholics was higher than that of the average Korean family.
    On the one hand this meant that the Church in Korea has become rich in human and material resources. But on the other hand, the Church, being transformed into a church of the middle class people, has created such atmosphere that those of the poorer strata would distance themselves from it. If the Church is led by a specific class of people, universal salvation which is the goal of the Church's existence cannot be realized. Thoughtful clergy and people in the Church began to voice their concerns.
    Statistics also indicated that it was time for the Church in Korea to be concerned about the re-evangelization of the faithful. According to the statistics of the Catholic Church at that time the number of those who stopped coming to Church or those who are "unidentified" amounted to as many as 600,000 or 22.93% in 1989 and it reached 1,091,271 or 29.68% of the total Catholic population in 1997. It was found that the majority of these people were those who left their home towns and went to other places during the rapid social changes. Because of this the question of the "pastoral care of out-migrants" emerged and systematic efforts to re-evangelize the faithful were strengthened.
    One of the characteristics of the Church in Korea at that period was diocese- centered pastoral ministry. As result of this the number of parishes increased in parallel with the number of Catholics. In the 1980's there were 589 parishes and this increased to 776 in 1989 and to 1,079 in 1997. The average number of Catholics per parish was 2,237 in 1989 and this increased to 3,351 in 1997. There was a big difference however between city and farming community. In the larger cities, many Churches found with 10,000 parishioners. This number may be good when compared to the Church in Latin America and Africa. Korean parishes were small traditionally. Thus the rapid growth of the Church into large communities raised quite a number of problems in the domain of pastoral care.


5. Clergy and Religious in the 1980's

    In 1945, by the time Korea gained its independence from Japanese colonial rule, there were 238 priests in Korea and this number increased to 1,626 by the end of the 1980's by showing a rapid increase. At the time of independence only 57.7 percent of the clergy were native Koreans, but in 1989 their number reached 1,385 or 86.2 percent and in 1997 it reached 2,453 or 92 percent out of total number of priests in the country. In 1997 among the Ordinaries of the fourteen dioceses in Korea only one Ordinary was non Korean. This fact clearly tells that the inculturation of the Church in Korea has been strengthened in terms of clerical numbers and ecclesial structures.
    One striking characteristic of the clergy in Korea is that among the priests the vast majority or 93.35 percent are diocesan priests. Compared to other local Churches in Asia or Europe the diocesan priest rate in the Church in Korea is very high. As of 1997, in the seven major seminaries there were 1,539 seminarians and most of them were diocesan ones. The abundant priestly vocation is a promising sign for the future of the Church in Korea.
    The role of the religious has also been strengthened during the recent modern development. There were 20 institutes for religious men in the 1980's and this doubled to 42 in 1997 while the number of institutes for religious women increased from 37 in 1980 to 91 in 1997. The number of religious men increased from 343 in the 1980's to 943 in 1997 and the number of religious women increased from 3,169 in the 1980's to 7,860 in 1997. The majority of religious women are engaged in parish ministry or are working in the field of education, medical service and social welfare. Some have also gone abroad on mission to help the Churches in other countries.