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Korean Catholic Church plans major recruitment drive

Targeting the wealthy may lead to marginalization, warns expert

Korean Catholic Church plans major recruitment drive

This mosaic in a basilica in Nazareth was a gift from the Korean Catholic Church. Picture: Kobby Dagan/

Paolo Affatato for Vatican Insider/La Stampa

August 5, 2014

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The Catholic Church in South Korea is planning to raise its membership to 20% by 2020 thanks to a vigorous “spiritual marketing” campaign. Nevertheless attendance at Sunday mass has dropped.

The Church is seeking out its members mainly in the wealthier neighbourhoods and among the middle class but in doing so risks leaving out the poor and the marginalized. The Korean Church is faced with the challenge of responding to young people’s fascination with consumerist and individualistic models and to an increase in depression and suicide rates among adults.

This is the picture painted by three representatives of the Catholic Church in Korea in an interview with Vatican Insider: Catholic theologian Serena Kim Hae-Kyung, Italian missionary Vincenzo Bordo who has been in Korea for 24 years, Augustine Lee Jeong-joo, a diocesan priest in Seoul and director of public relations for the Korean Episcopal Conference. The picture they paint reflects the state of the Catholic community in Korea and the social challenges it faces.

Figures are the best starting point for describing the face of the Korean Church today: in half a century – from 1960 to 2010 – the South Korean population rocketed from 23 to 48 million people and Christians who once made up just 2% of the population, ended up representing 30% of it (11% of them Catholics).

The factors that led to this pronounced and complex expansion are many, some of them spiritual and others social, the three interviewees told Vatican Insider.

Bishops like to remind the world that the Korean Church was “founded on the blood of martyrs”. “The number of martyrs in question is 10 thousand and this sacrifice was definitely a blessing for the generations of Christians that followed,” Serena Kim Hae-Kyung, a theologian and writer says.

“There was another leap in Christian numbers after the 60’s and 70’s. Korea was coming out of a fratricidal war with the North and recovering from moral and financial distress. The Catholic Church in those years – a period marked by misery and a tough military dictatorship – courageously stood by the side of the people in suffering and persecuted politicians, This inspired a deep appreciation for the Church and its pastors as well as an attraction to Christianity and its universal values of peace, reconciliation, love and forgiveness, all values that the nation was deeply in need of.”

Since then, evangelisation has gathered pace and has even been infused with a sense of triumphalism, says Vincenzo Bordo, a missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate: “The Korean Church has set itself the pastoral goal of raising its membership within the Korean population to 20% by 2020. Knowing Koreans’ intelligence, willingness, enthusiasm and marketing skills – the international growth of Korean industries proves this – this is possible. Many hope that the Pope’s visit will act as an impetus.”  

But there is a risk that “the goal could become merely a numerical question because has been a marked drop in Sunday mass attendance: only 22% attend Sunday mass compared to 80% of Catholics twenty years ago. This says it all: “If the Korean Church wants to grow in terms of quality and richness of faith – today’s challenge – it should make their own the values the Pope will be highlighting on his forthcoming visit, starting with the “Evangelii Gaudium” and his passion for the poor.”

This is a sore subject: “The Korean Church is learning to pay attention to the poor. But today there is still a risk of it coming across as a Church of the rich and for the rich,” Bordo - who has looked after homeless children, adults, the elderly and the marginalised for 22 years - says. 

Full Story: Christian “spiritual marketing” in Korea

Source: Vatican Insider/La Stampa

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