More and more Koreans find faith amid adversity
Modern pressures mean exponential growth for the Church
Catholics pray at Myeongdong Cathedral, Seoul, following the death of Pope John Paul II in this file photo. (Picture: AFP Photo/Jung Yeon-Je)
Christian faith can be triggered by many things. It can be a single event, a traumatic or an enlightening one, or the desire for it can build up through a series of stressful situations.
But what marks out Korea as distinctive in Asia is the exponential growth in the number of Christians – Protestant and Catholic – since World War II. The sharp growth in Protestant Christianity was evident for several decades from 1950.
In the same period in Korea, the number of Catholics grew slowly from a low base of 170,000 in 1961 to 450,000 by 1968. But in the last three decades the number of Catholics has grown exponentially – from 800,000 in 1980 to over five million today.
Some social scientists have attributed the sharp growth of converts to the large number of middle-aged women whose children have grown up and left home while never developing careers for a second life. They then look to and find in the Church community connections and a life purpose at this new stage in their lives.
Among younger Koreans, the stress of life in a competitive, technologically advanced and highly urbanized society seems to be the big driver in the search for faith.
Rena (the name comes from reincarnation – her Korean name is You Jung-song) is 22 years old and was baptized four years ago following the high stress she experienced while preparing for her high school exams.
High school examination is one of the key sources of stress which young Koreans face as they enter adulthood. Preparing for the exams is perhaps the most important moment for any teenager. Almost 75 percent of the student population participates in additional private lessons in preparation for the test.
Nobody wants to stay behind in the most important race to acquire good credit for university access.
"I was baptized on Easter Sunday," she says, glancing at her smartphone calendar. She attended a Catholic school before entering the Jesuit University of Sogang.
"My conversion stems from a period of high stress due to the study for the KSAT [Korean Scholastic Aptitude Test]. I got sick at that time due to too much time spent at the books," she says.
"Also my grandmother got sick at that time, and my aunt had economic problems, all creating a number of quite stressful situations."
If getting sick while preparing for an exam sounds strange, in Korea it is not exceptional. Most South Korean students consider their final year of high school the 'year of hell'.
The problems for Rena began when her mother gave her what she saw as an overdose of pressure for the final exam: so-called 'tiger moms' are a Korean phenomenon. An English teacher in Seoul recently asked his students, all 16 years of age, 'what they most feared'. By far the most common answer was, 'my mother!'
Parents in Korea have the highest expectations of their children’s academic performance. Here good results are expected not only to provide a basis for family pride and something to brag about with friends. There is also the added expectation that by getting good results, children will find the good jobs that provide financial support for parents in their old age. Still today, it is an established custom that the first paycheck a son and daughter gets will be delivered directly to the parents as a symbolic gesture of gratitude.
"All this seems exaggerated to Western ears", said Rena, "but in Korea, if you don't do well on this test, you will not have access to the universities that matter, you will not get a good job, and maybe no one will want to marry you because of your low social status".
Rena says she always had a favorable opinion of Catholics and that her difficulties with exam preparation tipped the balance.
"My mother was already Catholic, she was baptized five years earlier. My father on the other hand is a researcher at the university – he deals with science and he's an atheist. I personally have always had a good image of Catholics, especially from the stories I've heard about John Paul II, who came here to Korea twice.”
The biggest numerical growth among Protestant Christians in Korea occurred after the Korean War when the Churches were involved in caring for a population ravaged by decades of war and occupation. Protestant Christians were responding to trauma: the psychological, spiritual and material damage suffered during the decades of conflict and occupation.
While the Catholic Church played a strong part in opposing Japan and Korea’s two dictatorships from the early 1960s until the late 1980s, Catholics only saw the sharp growth in its numbers after the two visits of Pope John Paul II in the 1980s.
“I was not born yet, but I have heard many stories about John Paul II,” Rena says. “I saw the images on TV. I remember reading an article where they spoke of his official apology to each group who had suffered for the mistakes committed by the Church in the past, like the Jews, the Muslims … this impressed me very much, I have to say.
“I thought that this was really a great gesture aimed at establishing a climate of universal religious reconciliation. And then there are my Catholic friends who spend a lot of their time doing volunteer work, which is quite unusual for boys of my age. Even I got the inspiration from them to follow the same path of faith that nourished those choices.
“Now like them, I teach underprivileged children. But in the end it all began with finding peace of mind to go through with my study for the high school exam."
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