At South Korea’s most prominent cathedral, worshippers must come early. Like they do every week, Catholics attending midday mass at Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul on Sunday waited in long lines outside in the hope of getting a seat.
While large attendance is the norm at the church located in one of the capital’s busiest shopping areas, Sunday’s sermon held special significance ahead of Pope Francis’ visit. He arrives here Thursday for a five day visit, his first trip to Asia as pontiff.
The visit highlights the remarkable growth of the Roman Catholic Church in a country that has defied international trends by simultaneously becoming more wealthy and more religious. Since the last visit of a pope to South Korea in 1989, the number of Catholics here has almost tripled, rising to more than 10 percent of the population and a third of all Christians.
“This visit by his Holiness to Korea has a very special meaning for us,” Father Luke Koh Chan-keun told the congregation, which included dozens of worshippers who stood due to a lack of seats. “He is coming to ... pray for forgiveness and reconciliation between the divided people of South and North Korea. We hope that the Korean church can become the center of Asia through his visit.”
Asia is a growing priority for the Vatican. The pope will travel to Sri Lanka and the Philippines in January, and is reported to be considering a stop in Japan. Although Catholicism is a minority religion in every Asian country except the Philippines, Asia and Africa are the only regions where Catholicism is growing, according to Vatican statistics. The last time a pope visited Asia was Pope John Paul II who traveled to the Philippines in 1995.
Social causes appeal
Part of the resilience of the Catholic Church in South Korea compared to Protestant churches that have seen declines in followers here is due to its active involvement in largely liberal social causes, according to some observers.
From being heavily involved in the pro-democracy movement in the 1970s and 80s, Catholic priests and laity have in recent years taken positions on more contentious issues. Dozens of Korean Jesuits and local priests and nuns have been arrested since 2011 in protests against the construction of a naval base on the popular tourist draw Jeju Island. Priests also protested the erection of high voltage power lines in Miryang, a small city in the southeast of the country.
“Those social activities, movements make ordinary people regard Catholicism, generally speaking, as kind of a religion they can count on, or they can trust,” says Hwang Kyung-hoon, the head of the Center for Asian Theology Solidarity at the Woori Theology Institute in Seoul.
It is also clear that many Koreans are impressed by Pope Francis’ image as a humble pontiff uninterested in the pomp of the office.
“He is humble and always trying to be with the people who really need some help,” says Hwang Eun-heay, a young hospital worker in Seoul who plans to watch the main events online.
While Protestantism is still the dominant Christian religion in Korea, it has failed to keep pace with the Catholic Church's rise. Its proportion of followers fell by 1.5 percent between 1995 and 2005, and various denominations have been plagued by scandals in recent years. Most recently, Rev. Cho Yong-gi, the founder of the Yoido Full Gospel Church, believed to have the world's largest congregation, was sentenced to three years in prison for embezzling church funds.
Such goodwill and admiration mean that Pope Francis’ visit, timed to coincide with World Youth Day, also comes burdened with heavy expectations. The Catholic and broader Christian community hope his presence can provide solace to a society grappling with income inequality, relations with North Korea, and the lingering trauma of April’s Sewol ferry disaster that killed hundreds of schoolchildren.
After meeting President Park Geun-hye on Thursday, Pope Francis is set to meet survivors of the Sewol and families of the victims at a mass in Daejeon, a city some 80 miles south of Seoul, on Friday. On his final day on Monday, he will dedicate mass at Myeongdong Cathedral to peace and reconciliation between the two Koreas.
“The Pope’s visit is a visit for peace in our country, and because Korean society these days is a little disordered, it would be a great help if Korean society could come together," says Kim Ji-seong, a health worker who attended Sunday’s midday Mass in Myeongdong.
Catholicism is widely considered to have had its formal start on the Korean Peninsula in 1784, with the establishment of a prayer house by Yi Sung-hun, a Korean baptized in Beijing who formed his community in Pyongyang. An estimated 10,000 Catholics were killed in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Confucian authorities of the day, a chapter that will be marked by Pope Francis on Saturday when he beautifies 124 martyrs.
Amid such anticipation, controversy and signs of unmet expectations have already emerged before the pontiff has stepped foot in the country.
Some families of the victims of the Sewol and their supporters, who have been on hunger strike for the passage of a special law to investigate the disaster, have vowed to continue their protest at Gwanghwamun Square, the site of Saturday’s beatification ceremony.
For others such as the young hospital worker Hwang, consoling words alone might just be enough.
“I just hope that he can console the people who are suffering and fighting for what's right,” she says. “I also want his love, kindness and braveness to affect people so they can do what's right and gain the courage to say the right thing out loud.”