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South Korea

Korean Church's military mission needs revitalization

The military mission is considered a 'golden fishing pond' of evangelization by Catholic leaders

UCA News reporter

UCA News reporter

Published: October 05, 2021 06:59 AM GMT

Updated: October 05, 2021 07:20 AM GMT

Korean Church's military mission needs revitalization

A group of military servicemen are seen with retired South Korean Bishop Francis Xavier Soo-il Yu of the Military Ordinariate of Korea after a retreat in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Bosco Link)

On the eve of Military Mission Sunday on Oct. 3, Bishop Titus Seo Sang-bum made an appeal to clergy, religious and faithful to carry on the Church’s mission to comfort and care for Korean soldiers.

“The mission to evangelize and care cannot be given up even in the midst of difficulties such as Covid-19,” said Bishop Titus, head of the Military Ordinariate of Korea.

The prelate pointed out that cooperation between parishes of the military diocese and civilian dioceses is absolutely essential for a successful mission, reports Catholic Times of Korea

The military mission has always been close to the heart of Father Seong Se-hyun, a former military chaplain.

Father Seong, a priest from Uijeongbu Diocese, served in the military ministry from July 2013 to June last year. Despite being discharged from the ministry, he remains passionate about serving current and veteran soldiers.    

Currently serving as the deputy director of the youth ministry of Uijeongbu Diocese, Father Seong was part of a recent survey of Korean soldiers that sought to identify the state of their personal and faith life and the challenges they face.

The optimistic figure is a reason to cheer for a ministry that has been serving military personnel for more than seven decades

The survey intended to determine the spiritual and pastoral needs of soldiers to figure out the areas the military mission needs to focus on to serve soldiers and their families effectively.

“Only 14 respondents said they are attending church regularly and will continue to lead a religious life in future,” Father Seong said, adding that the survey findings show that the Church needs to revitalize efforts to reach out to soldiers who seemingly have no intention of leading a religious life.

However, the priest pointed to a different scenario in his diocese where more young people who undertook mandatory military service are more attracted to religious life.

“About 14 percent of our new believers are young people who had been in military service and returned home. The number is rising every year,” Father Seong said.

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The optimistic figure is a reason to cheer for a ministry that has been serving military personnel for more than seven decades.

American Maryknoll missionary Monsignor George Carroll started the Military Chaplain Corps on Feb. 1, 1951, during the Korean War (1950-53). The Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea (CBCK) officially authorized the ministry in 1961.

On Oct. 23, 1989, it was elevated to the Military Ordinariate of Korea, which is known as Gunjong in South Korea. It does not belong to any ecclesiastical province but covers all Catholic military personnel and their families. It has 95 parishes and 166 mission stations with 100 priests.

According to South Korean law, all young men are required to serve 24 months of military service. Military chaplain priests celebrate Mass, counsel and accompany soldiers to provide them with religious and moral education.

Priests have baptized thousands of soldiers and the ministry is described as a “golden fishing pond” for evangelization.

By 2008, the Catholic population of the Military Ordinariate of Korea stood at 79,769.

South Korea has 6.7 million military personnel including 600,000 active forces, 3.1 million reserve forces and 3 million paramilitary forces, according to Global Firepower.

The Korean Church observes the first Sunday of October as Military Mission Sunday when church leaders urge Catholics to help through prayer, donations, twinning other parishes with military parishes and more participation of nuns in the military mission.

There are concerns that a sizable portion of those baptized during their military service are no longer practicing faithful.

The future of the Korean Church will be brighter if we can sustain the faith of young believers who were born in the military services

Father Seong said it was unfortunate that young people who were baptized while serving in the military didn’t continue their life of faith after being discharged, which means the Church needs to take further steps to keep the faith of young believers.

“The young people who came to know the faith in the military did not know how to keep that faith after being discharged. Reaching them and offering better pastoral care is now not an option but a necessity. The future of the Korean Church will be brighter if we can sustain the faith of young believers who were born in the military services,” he said.

A significant step in the right direction is the transfer of the digital religious records of former military servicemen from military parishes to civilian parishes where the young faithful belong, the priest said.

According to data from the education bureau of the Military Ordinariate, religious records of 10,970 former military personnel were transferred in recent years.

Father Choi Min-sung, head of the bureau, said the transfer of records allows soldiers' parishes to get in touch with them and help them to resume their religious life as well as receiving the sacraments of confirmation and marriage.

“The priests in parishes need to begin pastoring former military servicemen like Father Seong. They can do it themselves with the support of the bishop of the civilian diocese,” Father Choi said.

Father Yoon Won-seok, director of public relations of the Military Ordinariate, agreed.

“We can hope that other parishes will successfully replicate what Father Seong has been doing and offer pastoral care to the military veterans, and thus the military ministry will be revitalized,” the priest said.

Meanwhile, Father Seong says he will conduct a study on the faith life of military veterans in the first half of next year. He expects to publish a comprehensive report by then.

The study has two purposes — conducting catechism training for military veterans in parishes linking them with college student and youth groups, and sharing the findings with all dioceses to encourage them to offer pastoral care to military veterans.

“My goal is to make a good field so that the fallen seeds can bear 100 times more fruit,” Father Seong said.

This article uses material from a report published by Catholic Times of Korea on Oct. 3.

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