Updated: August 16, 2014 12:42 AM GMT
Pope Francis attends a meeting with the bishops of Korea at the headquarters of the Korean Episcopal Conference in Seoul on Thursday. (AFP photo/Vincenzo Pinto)
Pope Francis issued a rallying cry to South Korea’s already buoyant church on Thursday, calling on clergy to remember past struggles and engage with young Koreans in spreading the gospel.
Following a meeting with South Korea’s bishops at the end of the first day of his landmark visit, the pope recognized a Church that had bucked the trend in the developed world by growing faster than ever.
“It's a blessing for me to be here and to witness the vibrant life of the Church in Korea,” he said at the headquarters of the Korean Bishop’s Conference in Seoul.
“The fruitfulness of the Gospel on Korean soil, and the great legacy handed down from your forefathers in the faith, can be seen today in the flowering of active parishes and ecclesial movements, in solid programs of catechesis and outreach to young people, and in the Catholic schools, seminaries and universities.”
The speech set the tone for a visit that will see Pope Francis put 124 Korean martyrs on the path to sainthood during a huge outdoor mass in downtown Seoul on Saturday morning, followed by a concluding mass for Asian Youth Day at Haemi Castle, south of the capital, on Sunday.
Since Pope John Paul II last visited South Korea in 1989, Catholicism has exploded.
In the past 10 years, Catholic numbers have grown 70 percent to 5.4 million people, bucking a trend witnessed in other developed countries and in the Philippines, Asia’s largest majority Catholic country.
“[The] Korean Church had a momentous opportunity to go forward to neighbors through Pope John Paul's second visit. [The] Church opened numerous social welfare organizations to help the underprivileged and started to run them, entrusted from central and local governments,” Bishop Lazzaro You Heung-sik of Daejon told ucanews.com.
In the past six years, the number of priests in South Korea has risen 17 percent, many the eldest or only sons of shrinking families as fertility stagnates – a sign of the importance and acceptance afforded Catholicism here.
South Korea continues to be the exception to the rule that rapidly modernizing societies tend to shun religion, a point picked up by Pope Francis when he suggested that societies reach a tipping point as he called on South Korean bishops to continue to be “guardians of hope”.
“It is this hope which we are challenged to proclaim to a world that – for all its material prosperity – is seeking something more, something greater, something authentic and fulfilling,” he told the gathered bishops.
Although the Catholic Church in South Korea has been successful in expanding congregations, keeping young people interested amid modern-day distractions remains the biggest challenge, said Father Frank Park, a retired Jesuit professor of religious sociology at Seoul’s Sogang University. Many Koreans in their 20s drop out of Church life, he added.
“Youth are captivated by the media, the demands of their parents to get high grades and the lure of hand-phone games, not to mention the world-wide phenomenon of dating,” he said.