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The Korean Church has 'vision' problems

Interview: Bishop Peter Kang of Jeju says Korean Catholics differ on 'how to apply faith in real-life situations'

The Korean Church has 'vision' problems

In an interview conducted earlier this month, ucanews.com spoke with Bishop Peter U-ill Kang of Jeju, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea, about the papal visit to Korea in August. Cristian Martini Grimaldi sat down with Bishop Kang in his office in Seoul.

How are you preparing for the arrival of the Holy Father?

"Every diocese is preparing for the best, each one hoping to make a good impression. I'm trying to calm down the excitement a bit." (Laughs)

What are the most pressing issues that will be discussed with the pope?

"First, I will show my gratitude to him. I know that the period in which it will be in mid-August, it will be very tiring for him. Usually the popes during this period are resting in Castel Gandolfo. Sacrificing his holidays is a huge gift that the pope is giving to the Korean people. We are very grateful because he gave special attention to our country, as it is his first trip to Asia and he has chosen South Korea.

“Also considering his particular interest in world ​peace and considering our history, where a war is still formally not over yet, I would say that our hope is that his presence here will help to launch a new reconciliation between the North and the South. "

The Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung paid a one-day visit to the Inter-Korean industrial park in North Korea’s border city of Gaeseong. The question is, when you speak of reconciliation, you mean spiritual reconciliation, or a factual, political and geographical one?

"Certainly the latter. We are divided only since 1945. We have thousands of years of history in which the countries were one. We share the same ethnicity, the same language, the same culture, and many families are divided by this situation."

In addition to hopes, you would see a real chance for unification of the two Koreas? Is this achievable in reality?

"If we look at the whole history, the countries that have adopted the socialist ideology collapsed; they no longer exist. The only cases are North Korea and Cuba. Physiologically this cannot continue for many more years."

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Do you think that the change can come from within North Korea? Or would it have to be an internal force to drive the change?

"I do not think that change can come from the outside. It will be a push from the people within."

Rarely do we read of mass protests going on in North Korea.

"In fact, there are protests indeed in North Korea, but they are not highly publicized as you may well imagine. But we have small signs of resistance in the rural areas, particularly the poorest ones. I don’t have specific reports, but there were certainly small riots – very limited but still they are a signal.

“The motive that drives these rebellions is certainly not a political one, but it is a revolt due to the precariousness of existence. Hunger is an engine of rebellion stronger than ideals of democracy and justice."

To change the subject, we often hear about issues of division among the Korean clergy. Is this so?

"I would not say that there are problems of division, but of vision – for example, how to apply the faith in real-life situations. There are those who we call ‘liberals’, those who accept the social teachings of the church. They would like to see the Church’s hierarchy talking more openly about the social and political issues that affect Korea. Then there are the ‘conservatives’, those who think that this is not part of the duties of the clergy."

Where does the root of this difference in ‘vision’ lie?

"You have to understand the history of Korea in the '60s and '70s. At the time of Cardinal Kim and other bishops, they were very active in speaking out against the dictatorship at the time, and in favor of human rights. At that time no one could speak out against the national policy of the president, only the Catholic Church. Koreans knew that if you wanted to hear the truth you had to go to church. And this situation has lasted decades. Bishops and priests were arrested and tortured for that very reason."

Many years have passed since that time.

"Yes, but freedom of expression, for example, is almost non-existent nowadays in Korea. The media are controlled by large companies. There are few opposition newspapers and the situation is not getting better."

You have often criticized the current capitalistic system as the root of many of our social problems.

"Many progressives are hoping that the pope could speak out on the issue that most affects the young generation: the economic one. Half of the young people in Korea have unstable jobs, meaning they might lose them any time. They only have temporary contracts.

“The economy in Korea is good from the point of view of large numbers, but it is only the corporations that are getting richer. The poor are not at all improving their economic conditions. And even the pope has several times criticized the current economic system. The Evangelii Gaudium is a splendid example that this pope has given us."

Catholics are still growing in numbers in Korea. But fewer than it used to be 10 years ago.

“The Korean Church is growing externally, but many of the faithful are not spiritually mature. For example, the teachings on the social doctrine of the Church and those of the Second Vatican Council, they were not passed to the faithful. The hierarchies should work more on this issue. But it will take time."

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