Toward A ‘Green’ Korea Church

Fr. Ray Scanlon
February 21, 2007

The Korean Church is taking the lead in addressing the environmental problems that come with economic progress.

Korea has traditionally been an agricultural society with many cultural customs that reflect close bonds with nature and an understanding of the value and sacredness of all creation. However, South Korea’s rapid transformation into an industrial economy over the last 30 to 40 years and the considerable economic progress that came with it also has meant pollution of the air, water and land. Fortunately, many South Koreans are very aware of these threats to the environment and are responding to them.

An important moment in the Korean Catholic Church’s involvement in environmental issues came with the publication of the World Peace Day 1990 message from Pope John Paul II: “Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation.”

Korean Cardinal Nicholas Cheong showed earthworms to children during the “The Dream of the Worm” festival held on the grounds of the cathedral in Seoul. Photo courtesy of Pyonghwa Shinmun.

Korean Cardinal Nicholas Cheong showed earthworms to children during the “The Dream of the Worm” festival held on the grounds of the cathedral in Seoul. Photo courtesy of Pyonghwa Shinmun.

In his message, the Holy Father spoke of the morality of the ecological crisis and the responsibility of all to work for the integrity of creation. The Korean bishops and priests took this message to heart and began to suggest ways for dioceses, parishes and individual Catholics to participate in the work of protecting the environment. They also invited Buddhist, Protestant and other religious leaders to work together with them in this urgent project.

The Seoul Archdiocese, for example, established a pastoral office for environmental ministry and began to hold workshops for education about environmental matters and the connection with the church’s moral teaching and spirituality. Among the invited speakers in 2001 was Columban Father Sean McDonagh, an expert on the Earth’s ecology related to Christian theology.

The Environment Pastoral Office also engages in publishing and distributing printed materials for parishes, schools and other groups. These publications have titles such as “An Environmental Stations of the Cross,” “Rice: The Bread of Life,” “Ten Commandments for the Respect of and Care for Creation.”

Another example of an environmental ministry was a “green festival” called “The Dream of the Worm” held on the grounds of the Myongdong Cathedral in Seoul, South Korea’s capital. The festival was a public celebration of a pastoral letter, titled “A Church Community that Lives Ecologically,” by Nicholas Cheong, the Seoul Cardinal Archbishop.

Festival events included a workshop with discussions on the Bible and sustainable living and Buddhist and Catholic attitudes toward the environment. Books with tips on ecological living were for sale and stalls on the Cathedral grounds displayed and sold organic foods and other products.

During a Mass, Cardinal Cheong called on all of us as individuals, parish communities and as a diocese to learn about and to put into practice care for our created Earth. At the conclusion of the Mass, the Cardinal signed and promulgated his pastoral letter, which gives a background to environmental issues and describes practical ways the Catholic community can respond to these problems.

Links Between Cities & Farmers
Another matter of concern for the Korean Church has been the breakup and stress experienced by farming communities in a rapidly industrializing economy. In response to this problem, “The Movement to Revive Our Farming Communities” was established. With the help of the Catholic Farmers Movement, links were formed between farming communities and city parishes.

Many city parishes now sell organically produced farm products, health foods and organic cosmetics and soaps to parishioners and their neighbors through more than 80 parish outlets in Seoul and surrounding districts.

A monthly newspaper advertises available products and provides articles about farming, health foods and the environment. Products also may be ordered through the movement’s website, which also carries many related articles and items of information and interest.

In his pastoral letter, the cardinal discussed how a recent survey showed that most Catholics believe that environmental pollution is a serious problem that the Catholic community and individual Catholics are doing little about.

For Christians, protection of God’s creation is a new commandment for our times, he wrote. He called on all parishes to include this new commandment in catechism teaching and to organize education about environmental and creation issues for all their members.

Finally, Cardinal Cheong called upon all Catholics to engage in what he calls “the happy inconveniences” of a simple and frugal lifestyle. Thereafter, the weekly diocesan bulletin proceeded to give practical examples of these happy inconveniences, such as having a car-free day, composting leftover food, saving water and avoiding the use of plastic bags.

The Cardinal wrote that there is still time to act to restore a healthful environment. We hope that he is right and that Catholics and believers of other faiths in Korea and throughout the world will work with the Creator in making all things new.

In 2004, Columban Father Ray Scanlon returned from the United States to Korea, where he is the rector of initial formation.