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Ousting of Park: Its place in Korea's Catholic history

Catholics have probably been the most determined in voicing their opposition to the impeached president

Ousting of Park: Its place in Korea's Catholic history

South Korea's impeached president Park Geun-Hye arrives at her private residence in Seoul on March 12. Park left the presidential Blue House two days after the Constitutional Court's verdict removed her from office over a massive corruption scandal. (Photo by AFP)

Cristian Martini Grimaldi, Seoul
South Korea

March 16, 2017

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Two days after South Korea's top court ousted Park Geun-hye from the presidency, the 64-year-old left the official residence of the country's head of state for the last time. Some 900 of her supporters showed up out front of the so-called Blue House to say their farewells.

At the same time anti-Park protesters were celebrating along the Gwanghwamun Plaza in central Seoul, the same location where they have protested against her since October of last year. In fact the day after Park was removed half a million Koreans gathered at the plaza to celebrate the news of the court's judgement.

This coming Saturday may see another huge parade in Seoul and among them will be thousands of Catholics who have been probably the most persistent in voicing their opposition of the impeached president.

Catholics have attended anti-Park demonstrations every Saturday since last fall to protest the former premier's collusion with friend Choi Soon-sil who reportedly manipulated her to gain access to secret documents and allegedly embezzled funds through non-profit foundations.

Beyond this, Catholics have held Masses every Monday in Seoul's centre ever since the Sewol ferry disaster of April 2014 claimed the lives of more than 300 people, most of them Korean students who drowned in the cold waters of the East China Sea.

"The president may be out of power but we still need to deliver justice and find who is truly responsible for that tragedy," said Yeon a Catholic mother who was in the plaza with her husband and child the day after the court ruling. Park's critics say that lives could have been save had she responded more quickly to the emergency.

To many Catholics it doesn't matter if the Blue House is now empty. They are going to continue celebrating Mass every Monday until a proper trial takes place in the hope of shedding light on the disaster and the recently impeached former president's role in it.

"We have been celebrating with our religious brothers as soon as we heard of the court's ruling," said a young Korean Oblate priest who has participated in the demonstrations.

"One thing Catholics have is endurance, we have seen it all over their history in Korea," he said. What the priest might be referring to is the 10,000 Korean martyrs, of which 123 were beatified on Aug. 16, 2014 by Pope Francis during the Asian Youth Day events right in the plaza, the same location of today's expression of political dissent.

 

Reputation

Unlike other religions in Korea, Catholics continue to enjoy a good reputation. Several years ago a survey showed that Catholicism is the religion that Koreans consider most reliable, even more so than Buddhism.

Despite a slight decline in the percentage of growth in recent few years, the number of Catholics are increasing. At the end of the 19th century there were only a few thousand. Now there more than 5 million, and as a whole the Christian community in South Korea is about 30 percent of the country's 50 million people.

Not only is the Catholic community in Korea big in Asia it is the only example of an evangelization that was not prompted by missionaries but instead by lay Koreans.

Christianity arrived in Korea as a synonym for "Western wisdom," in the form of scientific texts written and translated into Chinese by the Jesuits. Only after the introduction of this knowledge — geographical, astronomical and military — did Catholicism begin to be investigated in its religious dimensions.

Once Catholicism was absorbed into the cultural fabric of Korean society it challenged the country's values, which were until then rigidly structured around the idea of rank and gender discrimination as per Confucian culture.

But the period of growth in vocations did not occur until after the Korean War. The population during that period was living in extreme poverty. The church was sensitive to this reality and always taught that pain and suffering are never in vain.

With these principles in mind, in the second half of the last century, Catholics and Protestants have produced various lay solidarity groups that have helped to create a strong sense of community in an otherwise scattered society that was fast moving towards the consumerist and individualistic mentality of contemporary culture.

When the "roaring" 70s and 80s arrived, Catholicism came to be seen as the religion of the democratic movement that opposed the military dictatorships then in charge of the country.

A generation later Catholics have been engaged in yet another political challenge which this time around did not arise from a dictatorial tyranny but from corruption within a democratically elected government. But as a wise British man of the past once said: "Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

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