Catholics attend Mass at Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul last April when public Masses resumed after suspension due to the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo: Catholic Times of Korea)
More than a year after the Covid-19 pandemic hit South Korea, the Church is mulling a new pastoral approach to continue evangelization and to tend to the spiritual life of the faithful in the "new normal" conditions.
As the outbreak posed enormous challenges to the social, economic and religious life of people, the Church needs to focus on how to maintain communion with people in the changed scenario, said Father Chung Hee-wan, director of the Catholic Culture and Theology Institute.
“Religious life is moving from the center of the Church to the daily life of people, mostly due to non-face-to-face communion during the Covid-19 outbreak. To cope with the situation, the Church needs to go through a long process of change and renewal in order to maintain the Church’s mission of evangelization and keep people together in communion with God,” Father Chung said.
The Korean Church and faithful have shown extraordinary love and compassion to people affected by the pandemic by offering food, cash and essentials to poor and low-income people, and now the time has come to rethink the existing pastoral policy for the faithful, the priest said.
“With a prolonged Covid-19 crisis, various organizations and pastoral research institutes in the Korean Church need to come up with new pastoral plans suitable for the new era, which has already started,” he said.
South Korea recorded its first Covid-19 case on Jan. 20 last year. A 35-year-old Chinese woman who entered the country from Wuhan, the Chinese city where the deadly virus was first detected, was the first official infection in South Korea.
The authorities imposed what was dubbed one of the largest and best organized epidemic control programs in the world. It included banning international flights, physical distancing, mandatory face masks, mass testing, contact tracing and isolation for infected people.
While the measures were effective in halting mass community transmissions, a Christian sect in Daegu was blamed for spreading the virus to dozens of people. Some 40 people who attended prayers sessions of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu in February were found to be infected.
Members of the sect, founded in the 1980s, gather in the thousands for prayer programs. They sit and kneel close to one another and are forbidden to wear masks during services. Followers of Shincheonji hide their membership as they are not a popular sect in South Korea. They also see sickness as a weakness.
Tens of thousands of South Koreans urged the government to dissolve the sect for violating health guidelines that unleashed the viral outbreak in Daegu metropolitan area, which has a population of 2.5 million.
In order to stop the spread of the virus, the Archdiocese of Daegu canceled all public services in February. The measure was followed by all Catholic archdioceses and dioceses in a country where Catholics account for about 5.6 million.
The doors of churches remained closed even during Easter when millions usually flock to services.
Public Masses resumed in April with limited numbers of participants and following strict health and safety measures including thermal testing, sanitization, face masks and physical distancing.
However, public Masses in all dioceses were suspended again from Dec. 16 following the second wave of the coronavirus, which meant no public Masses even on Christmas Day. Masses resumed again on Jan. 18 for limited number of participants.
According to Father Park Dong-ho of Seoul Archdiocese, the Korean Church supported weak and vulnerable groups during the crisis triggered by the contagion.
After the pandemic struck, the welfare and safety nets for poor and vulnerable people in society took a hit. Soup kitchens for the poor were closed and many struggled to survive after losing jobs and income, while migrant workers and refugees faced massive financial losses, even struggling to buy masks, the priest noted.
“On the other hand, priests, religious and laypeople have carried out voluntary fundraising campaigns to support the vulnerable. The Church has distributed masks and kitchens of churches prepared lunch boxes for poor residents. That was a great way of showing love and giving hope to people during the crisis,” Father Park said.