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Korea's 'two Churches' collide in papal visit planning

Pope Francis' itinerary won't take him to 'the margins' where the Gospel lives, say activists

<p>Women religious in Seoul sit on Tuesday with families of those who died in the April 16 sinking of a ferry to show support for an independent investigation of the disaster. (Photo by Thomas C. Fox)</p>

Women religious in Seoul sit on Tuesday with families of those who died in the April 16 sinking of a ferry to show support for an independent investigation of the disaster. (Photo by Thomas C. Fox)

  • Thomas C. Fox for National Catholic Reporter, Seoul
  • Korea
  • August 13, 2014
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When Pope Francis arrives here Thursday, he will encounter a vibrant but divided Korean church. It is a church that has grown substantially in numbers in recent decades, but one with significant internal divisions.

"There are actually two churches here," said Columban Father Pat Cunningham, "the church of the bishops and the church of the progressive minority."

At the center of this division is how Korean Catholics should engage society and how Catholics should respond to the needs of the poor and the marginalized, especially those displaced by the rapid social and economic change that has occurred here in the past two decades.

Church fractures are not uncommon. However, the division between Korean bishops and Catholic activists has grown as more conservative bishops have been appointed during the past three decades and Catholic activists have become more vocal.

The division between these groups has surfaced in recent months as planning for the papal trip has gone forward.

Pope Francis' five-day itinerary is the product of a committee of Korean bishops who collaborated with government and Vatican officials. From the viewpoint of the Korean bishops, the papal visit is intended to encourage Korean Catholics, linking past, present and future.

The two most visible papal events will be the time Francis spends with young people at Asian Youth Day and his beatification of 124 martyrs who died for their faith in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The president of the preparatory committee, the president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea, has said that the papal trip, by focusing on church martyrs, will "lift up to the Gospel values" they died for. "In the life of martyrdom, we can discover true peace and reconciliation," Bishop Peter U-il Kang of Cheju said.

For their parts, Catholic activists, including lay leaders, religious and priests, also cite the Gospels, saying their distinctly radical call for justice and service to the needy are missing in the papal itinerary.

Approximately two dozen NCR interviews with Korean Catholics found widespread disappointment among lay leaders, priests and religious. They say their repeated suggestions to the Korean bishops' planning committee were all rejected.

The activists said they had hoped Francis would have "gone to the margins" of Korean society, where he has called upon Catholics to preach the Gospels by serving the poor.

The activists cited Francis' first papal excursion, a visit to Lampedusa, Italy's southernmost island, after seeing newspaper headlines describing the drowning of immigrants at sea. At Lampedusa, Francis urged the world to awaken to the needs of immigrants.

The activists suggested to the planning committee that Francis visit Gangjeong village on the southern coast of Jeju island, where the Korean government is building a naval base to give port to U.S. warships.

They wanted Francis to visit the rural town of Miryang, where elderly Koreans have been doing all they can to stop the construction of high-voltage transmission towers across their land.

In each instance, the Korean bishops dismissed the suggestions of these Catholic activists, the activists said. As the activists see it, Francis' visit to their land is, at best, a missed opportunity and, at worst, a means of affirming an unjust status quo.

At the same time, they have not given up hope entirely. Though the hour is late, they still think Francis could pull off a surprise, saying something that clearly underlines his vision of church, one that is visibly grounded is justice and peace.

"I see no connection between Francis' 'Joy of the Gospel' and the itinerary," said Moses Kwon Oh-kwang, director of Catholic National Federation for Justice. "At no time is Francis going to the margins, where he has told us the Gospel is to be lived."

Full story: Divided South Korean church awaits Pope Francis

Source: National Catholic Reporter

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