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South Korean church frets as baptisms decline, flocks grey

Dovetailing trends set alarm bells ringing as evangelization hits worrying speed bump in Land of the Morning Calm
South Korean church frets as baptisms decline, flocks grey

Parishioners attend a Mass at Seoul's Myeongdong Cathedral in this 2018 file photo. (Photo by The Catholic Times)

Published: April 19, 2018 04:10 AM GMT
Updated: April 19, 2018 04:25 AM GMT

The Catholic Church in South Korea had 5.813 million worshippers accounting for 11 percent of the country's population as of Dec. 31, 2017, up 1.3 percent from one year earlier, according to newly released statistics.

But the figures released on April 13 by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea (CBCK) also represent the slowest rate of growth in the last decade, leaving church authorities concerned about a continued wind-down.

Last year, a total of 96,794 young Catholics were baptized in the country but this also represents a slowdown as the figure dropped 12.9 percent from 2016.

In fact, the number of baptisms has steadily declined since 2008 with the exception of one year, 2014, when Pope Francis visited Korea, met with some of the "comfort women" survivors of World War II and held a Mass in Seoul.

Meanwhile, attendance at Masses nationwide has also taken a hit in recent years, with 19.4 percent fewer people showing up regularly in 2017 compared to the previous year.

Such trends have concerned the church as parishioners, in line with Korean society as a whole, are greying.

Among the Catholic population, 18.4 percent are aged 65 or older while just 6.6 percent are aged 10 to 19 years. Ten years ago the situation was quite different with elderly people comprising 12.6 percent of devotees.

By diocese, Seoul remains by far the most popular with 1,527,951 Catholics affiliated to parishes in the capital, the statistics show.

Suwon ranks No. 2 with 900,764 people followed by Incheon (510,923) and Daegu (503,551).

The Catholic Pastoral Institute of Korea, which falls under the auspices of the CBCK, has expressed concern about these dovetailing trends as they indicate the Catholic population will continue to dwindle as fewer young people are drawn to the church.

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