Catholicism in Korea: The Evolution of Mission

December 10, 2010

South Korea is a nation that looks and feels rich, peaceful and confi dent. The claim to a prosperous future is tangible, although some imagination is needed to appreciate the political and economic changes that have taken place over recent years. In religious and spiritual terms, the change has been no less significant.

Fr. Michael Gormly

Fr. Michael Gormly is presently at St. Columban’s, Lower Hutt, New Zealand.

Liberation after 36 years of occupation by Japan meant a “cold war” division of the peninsula in 1945. North of the 38th parallel came under the infl uence of Kim Il Sung and Russian communism. South of the parallel went to Rhee Syngman and United States infl uence. Each side soon had its own government, its own capital and its own army.

Both sides claimed legitimate authority over the whole peninsula. A bitter war broke out in June 1950 with huge troop losses on both sides. Worse, many civilians were killed by bullets, bombs, disease and starvation. In the end, the two forces faced each other in more or less the same positions. The wrenching effect of this unresolved crisis left a tragic imprint on the nation and remains the backdrop to national life.

korea catholic faith mission

Catholicism in Korea

In 1965, we counted the Catholic population in Korea at about 500,000. Today we speak of 5,100,000. How does one explain this tenfold increase in one’s own missionary tenure? The immediate post-war period saw countless refugees seeking a livelihood in an already ravaged country beset with food shortages. Missionaries did their best to help with the establishment of development projects and the building of community facilities, and I retain memories from the 1960s to the 1980s of real heroism in the Church and in society.

Many Christians took a prophetic stance in the face of a series of dictators. Their voice was signifi cant at a time when people feared to speak for themselves. They may have been denounced and even imprisoned, but ultimately they made a difference.

The vitality of the parishes is the first thing that impacts on a visitor. The post-war role of missionaries played a large part in Church affairs of the time. Giving and serving was the initial task. Then, as local leadership emerged, both sides were giving and receiving. Mission
became mutually enriching for all.

Thirty years later, the Church is a vibrant and expanding force in Korean society. The stance of the Church in tough times has borne fruit. Non-Christians see the role of the Church in promoting Gospel values. People appreciate the teachings and accept its role for their society.

Church leadership placed a great emphasis on promoting shared pastoral activity, especially with issues of social conscience and peaceful reconciliation. A dynamic style of lay leadership emerged. Moreover, vocations to the priesthood and religious life were abundant.

Today the missionary role of the Korean Church deserves recognition. Korean missionaries work in many countries. They cover the world from the place of sunrise to the place of sunset. The Korean Mission Society has commitments in New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Taiwan, China, Russia, Cambodia and Mozambique. In migration too, Korean Catholics are keen to play a part in the local Church scene. They certainly bring passion, energy and readiness to their Church life. The manner of their presence has already become both a challenge and resource for Catholicism in Australia and New Zealand.

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of Columban Mission.