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Pope John Paul II helped cement Catholic identity in Korea

His visits emphasized unity in a divided world and justice for the oppressed

Steve Finch, Bangkok

Steve Finch, Bangkok

Published: August 11, 2014 03:46 PM GMT

Updated: August 17, 2014 11:40 AM GMT

Pope John Paul II helped cement Catholic identity in Korea

Hundreds of thousands gather in Yeouido Square in Seoul for the 44th Eucharistic Congress on October 8, 1989, during Pope John Paul II's second visit to Korea.  

When the Pope last came to South Korea in 1989, the flight itself summed up the turbulence facing the World – and the Church’s role within it.

At 2:15pm on Friday, October 6, the special Alitalia plane carrying Pope John Paul II took off from Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci Airport and flew across Eastern Europe. The 13-hour flight then took the pope through Soviet airspace for the first time – though the Kremlin never sanctioned an official visit – a month before the Berlin Wall was knocked through and Europe reunited.

“Flying over Soviet territory en route to a pastoral visit to several Asian countries, I wish to greet your excellency and to assure you of my best wishes for the well-being and prosperity of your countrymen,” said a papal message radioed to then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev as the Boeing 747 flew over Moscow. “I pray for blessings of the Most High on all Soviet people.”

Four months after crushing pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government had denied permission for an over-flight making a mockery of reports that this 1989 papal visit might include stops in Communist China, and later North Korea.

“The Chinese government said no to Alitalia. It didn’t say no to the pope,” the pontiff said in a teasing remark to reporters aboard the flight. 

In December the previous year, South Korea’s official news agency had cited Church officials in Seoul attempting to arrange for the pope to touch down in Pyongyang, cross the demilitarized zone through the truce village of Panmunjom and continue overland to Seoul.

Instead, Pope John Paul II landed in the South Korean capital on the morning of Saturday, October 7, to a rapturous welcome – his second visit in just over five years during a tumultuous period.

Since Pope John Paul II’s landmark visit in 1984, South Korea had witnessed its first democratic elections in 1987 and hosted the Olympic Games the following summer. But despite this progress, the atrocities of previous military rule had still not been investigated, nor had there been any progress towards peace between the Koreas.

“Like the World at large, Korea has experienced some changes which are disturbing, while others fill the human heart with new hope and confidence,” he told the many thousands of people gathered at Seoul’s military airport that sunny October morning in 1989.

When he touched down in Seoul five years earlier on the first papal visit to the Korean peninsula, Pope John Paul II got down on his knees – his white robes glistening in the May sunshine – and kissed the tarmac as he repeated the words: “land of martyrs, land of martyrs”.

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It was a direct reference to the more than 8,000 Christians who died for their faith since the late 18th century. Indirectly, it resonated with the families and supporters of the estimated 241 activists killed when soldiers fired on civilians in the southwestern city of Gwangju four years earlier – a defining moment in South Korea’s struggle for democracy.

Both issues were at the heart of the 1984 visit. On Sunday, May 6, the pope held a mass for the canonization of 103 Korean Christian martyrs in what was then the biggest event ever held on the Korean peninsula, as hundreds of thousands of people descended on Seoul’s Yeouido Park, an island on the Han River.

Seoul resident Hojai Jung, who considers himself “half catholic” from his father’s side, remembered his astonishment at watching the event on television as a then fourth-grade student.

“That was a great event … almost two million people gathered in the Seoul square, singing a song for him,” he said.

For South Koreans at the time, it was unusual to see masses of people gathered that weren’t demonstrating as military rule began to unravel in regular protests by students, activists and unions.

Most rallies ended up surrounded by police and military personnel. But the pope’s mass in Yeouido – a huge open-air plaza that doubled as a military landing strip – was notable for its lack of security on that day, remembers Father Frank Park, a retired American-born Jesuit and professor of religious sociology at Seoul’s Sogang University.

“The social movements of the time showed no intent to use the papal visit as a chance to demonstrate,” he said. “There was no security clearance on people attending. The events were entirely open, in contrast with the present papal visit [by Pope Francis].”

Pope John Paul II’s mass earlier that same Sunday in Gwangju was more controversial. Held in the city’s Mudeung Stadium, the pope acknowledged the atrocities that had taken place just four years earlier. He then “pleaded with Gwangju, which was still seething with resentment, to take the first step toward forgiveness and reconciliation,” according to a Korean Bishops’ Conference statement at the time. 

Although Gwangju and South Korea have since moved on, Park notes that no one was ever truly held accountable for the atrocities committed under then military dictator Chun Doo-hwan, whose administration had misrepresented the demonstration as a Communist revolt.

When Pope John Paul II returned to South Korea in 1989, the country was still engaged in an anti-communist witch-hunt despite democratic elections two years earlier. Rights groups of the day were calling on the government to release three imprisoned priests, one of whom had travelled to North Korea that summer, with the other two having helped arranged the trip.

In 1989, inter-Korean relations were in disarray. Although the prime ministers of both countries were to meet for the first time in 12 years the following summer, any hint of the “Sunshine Policy” that would see relations thaw was still a decade away. The Great Leader Kim Il-sung was still firmly in power despite rumors of student protests at Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang a few months earlier. The chaos that engulfed the rest of the Communist world – including China – had barely registered in the Hermit Kingdom.

As such, nothing had changed north of the DMZ and there appeared little reason for North Korea to allow a first papal visit, or even engage with the trip at all. No one was officially allowed from the north to the south that October, just as in 1984.

Unperturbed, the pope prayed for reunification with 650,000 people on October 9 at Yeouido Plaza, the same place he had led prayers for Korean martyrs five years earlier.

“The Korean peninsula is symbolic of a world divided and not yet able to become one in peace and justice,” he told gathered crowds at the climax of the international Eucharistic Congress held that October in South Korea.

During a 35-minute meeting with President Roh Tae Woo – an army general during his 1984 visit – the pope urged moves towards rapprochement with the north. They never came.

Although Pope John Paul’s visits to South Korea were seen as unremarkable on North Korea and progress towards reunification – near-impossible tasks – they were viewed as successes in pushing democratic reform and developing the Korean Church.

Bishop Lazzaro You Heung-sik of Daejeon, a member of the spirituality department in the arrangement committee for the pope’s visit in 1984, said the two trips left an indelible mark.

After canonizing the first Korean saints in 1984, the Vatican under Pope John Paul II opened a Pontifical Korean College in Rome in 1990, a year after his second visit which also led to the government passing over responsibility for numerous social welfare organizations to the Church.

Since then faith has hardened, said Bishop Lazzaro. In the past 10 years, South Korea’s Catholic population has risen by 70 percent to 5.4 million people, despite a stagnant birth rate. While the church has struggled in most developed countries, in South Korea it has flourished.

“The Korean Church had a momentous opportunity to go forward to neighbors through Pope John Paul II’s visits,” said Bishop Lazzaro. “[They] served as an opportunity to confidently and proudly present the self as a Catholic, instead of hiding it for being afraid of persecution. In other words, we realized our value and importance in Korean society.”

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