The Korean Catholic Church, which is ten percent of the population, has a strong history of defending human rights, particularly during the dictatorship, as well as a history of persecution, evident in the recent beatification by Pope Francis of 124 Korean martyrs. Yet there are growing tensions in Korean society – and in the Korean Catholic Church – due to the increasing divide between rich and poor.
With a rapidly developing economy and political tensions in Korean society, the Korean people have significant differences of opinion regarding the best way to respond to the needs of the poor and growing economic inequality.
Prior to the Pope’s visit, Columban Director of the Korea Region, Fr. Donal O’Keeffe said: “Many hope that Francis will advert to the issue of wealth in the Korean Church and pointedly challenge the clergy in particular to live a simple lifestyle. There is an expectation that he will articulate concretely and clearly his vision of a ‘Church of the Poor’.”
During his recent visit, Pope Francis, encouraged Koreans to “reject inhumane economic models which create new forms of poverty and marginalize workers, and the culture of death which devalues the image of God, the God of life, and violates the dignity of every man, woman and child.” And he urged the Korean bishops to make solidarity with the poor a priority: “The apostolic ideal of a church of and for the poor found eloquent expression in the first Christian communities of your nation. I pray that this ideal will continue to shape the pilgrim path of the church in Korea as she looks to the future.”
Pope Francis also called for reconciliation, not only between North and South Korea, but throughout the Asian continent, alluding to his desire to encourage dialogue with China and recognizing the presence of several Korean “comfort women” seeking an official apology from Japan for their treatment during World War II. While these words were welcome, many Koreans were hoping the Pope would speak directly to the rising militarization of the Asian continent. Columban Fr. Donal O’Keeffe spoke to those concerns:
“Many are hoping that the Pope will speak out strongly against militarization and the choice of war as a means of solving problems; that he will call for new efforts for the way of peace in particular in NE Asia where there is presently a huge arms race. This is a sensitive subject because Korea itself is now a major player in the international arms industry both in the production and sale of weapons as well as expanding its own military capacity. The construction of the naval base on Jeju Island has been strongly opposed by the Peter Kang Woo-il, bishop of Jeju and also the President of the Bishops’ Conference. I feel he certainly would like the Pope to speak clearly on this question.”
On his return flight home, Pope Francis spoke of his desire to visit China, and confirmed his visit to the Philippines in January 2015. He also said that a papal encyclical on ecology is in progress and will be issued in the months ahead.