South Korea – “South Korea is full of joyful anticipation”


From 14 to 18 August Pope Francis will be visiting South Korea. In the interview below Johannes Klausa, the director of the new South Korean office of the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), talks about the background to this visit and the expectations within the country.

An interview with André Stiefenhofer

Adapted by Robert Lalonde, ACN Canada


Why has Pope Francis decided to visit South Korea?

Clearly, the Pope has a special affection for the young people of the world, as torchbearers for the Faith; this was evident from the choice of destination of his first foreign trip – to the World Youth Day in Rio. This time, during the Papal visit, the Catholic youth of Asia will likewise be gathering in Korea for the “Asia Youth Day”. Pope Francis is cleverly taking advantage here of the opportunity to address himself, from Korea, to the young people of the entire continent.

Like few other countries in Asia, Korea typifies the two issues – of the persecution of Christians and of growth – that are particularly important to the Holy Father. In 1953, after the end of the Korean War, there were some 190,000 Catholics in Korea. Today, just 6 years later, there are already more than 5.4 million of them!

But at the same time, the Korean Church is built on the blood and the witness of almost 10,000 martyrs. Those Christians who refused to publicly disavow their God generally paid for it with their lives. Already in 1984 Pope John-Paul II canonised 103 of these martyrs. The central focus of this visit will likewise be the beatification of another 124 of these martyrs, among them Paul Yunji Chung. Just one of them was a priest – for Korea’s Church was a Church of the laity. At the end of the 18th Century, when the first priest actually set foot on Korean soil, there were already 4,000 Catholics in the country.

Finally, like few other Asian countries, Korea exists in the glare of world public attention. After the Holy Land, the Korean peninsular is one of the major conflict flashpoints on the world political scene, one which flares up with frightening regularity, sending shockwaves throughout the world. It is not impossible that the papal visit may bring about new initiatives for the currently frozen relationship between the two Koreas.

How are people in the country preparing for the visit?

A  few weeks ago, when I was received by Cardinal Yeom Soo-jung for a meeting in his office, I was struck immediately by a cushion with a comic Pope on it. In Korea there is no contradiction between the notion of authority and portrayal as a comic figure. Politicians in elections, and even policemen use this form of portrayal as a way of engaging sympathies. And since then I have seen similar pictures of the Pope throughout the country. The portrayals range from Pope Francis key fobs,  through plastic figures, headscarves, and of course T-shirts. What I find particularly interesting is that the T-shirts that the thousands of volunteer helpers will be wearing were actually made by North Korean workers in the Kaesong Special Economic Zone. It’s a place where South Korean employers are employing almost 50,000 North Korean workers. I wonder if these workers actually know that they have been helping to prepare for a papal visit?

Also, 38 well-known Korean personalities have recorded an official hymn, which will be played of the various important occasions. Naturally, they have all waived their normal fee and the proceeds will go directly to a social project.

There are security issues on the agenda of the preparatory committee as well. The Pope has officially requested that during his visit he is not driven through the city in a bullet-proof limousine, but in an ordinary Korean small car.

Needless to say, Korea is preparing not only with pop songs and plastic toys but also with prayer groups, Scripture readings and with a special prayer for the papal visit. The priests are urging their parishoners to read up on the life and the encyclicals of the Holy Father, and especially his encyclical “Evangelii Gaudium”. In the secular bookstores too the tables are sagging beneath all the biographies and other books about Pope Francis. The whole country is looking forward to the visit of the Holy Father and is thououghly well prepared for it.


Can you describe something of Catholic parish life in South Korea for us?

Belonging to a particular social group is of central importance in Korea – much more important than in Western culture. In particular one’s own year group in school and at university tends to determine one’s circle of friends for life and is a central starting point for the sense of self-identification.

In the world of work it is rare for new friendships to be forged, and it is very difficult to gain admittance to new groups. Church communities are one of the few exceptions. A great many Koreans only find their way to the faith in adulthood in fact. Of course there are also families that have been Catholic for generations, but these are a minority today. In the Church community people are welcomed with open arms, and as a result the parishes are also something of a gathering place for those seeking friendship, of all ages.

Religious worship in Korea is very reverent, emotional and well-attended. For example, in the cathedral of Myeongdong ten Masses are celebrated on Sundays. Equally impressive is another statistic published by the bishops’ conference, namely that the Catholics of Korea, who number just a little over 5.4 million, went to confession over 4.6 million times during the year 2013.

What, in your view, will the priorities of the papal visit be? What will be Pope Francis’ principal aim, and what emphases and utterances can we expect?

The main emphasis of this year’s papal visit can be very well seen from the programme. The heading for his visit is the verse from Isaiah 60:1 “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee.” It is a direct exhortation to each one of the faithful.

At the Asia Youth Day in Daejeon the Pope will be directly addressing the Catholic young people of Asia. The meeting will be held under the slogan: “Youth of Asia, awake! The glory of the martyrs shines upon you.”

The beatification of the 124 martyrs will of course be a high point of his Korea trip.

Also part of his 5-day programme will be a meeting with leading figures of other religious faiths, and the visit to a major social project of the Catholic Church. Especially in South Korea, where the striving for material wealth and social status is all too often overemphasised, this Pope will undoubtedly take the part of the weak and needy and speak out clearly against the exaltation of “vile Mammon”.

At the big Mass in the World Cup Stadium in Daejeon the Pope will remember the victims of the ferry disaster in Sewol and speak words of comfort to their relatives. Currently no high-ranking visitor to Korea can visit the country without expressing sympathy for this shocking event. It is also to be expected that Pope Francis will speak out on the issue of human trafficking, at the same time recalling the terrible fate of the so-called “comfort women” who were forced into prostitution in the Japanese zone of occupation and whose fate was hushed up in Korea, out of shame, right up until the 1990s. Some of the handful of survivors of this atrocity will actually be present at the Mass of reconciliation.

How strong is the public presence of the Catholic Church in South Korean society?


The Catholic Church in South Korea has a very high reputation. It is seen as tolerant and modest and enjoys moral authority and integrity in the public perception. In a recent survey which asked: “Which religion is the most trustworthy in your opinion?” the Catholic faith held first place with 31.7%.

One reason for this positive image may be the fact that the Korean Church has always been on “the right side of history” and that its faith was not imposed by foreign missionaries but tested by Korean scholars, found good and then brought into the country. In the darker chapters of Korean history she always fought on the side of the poor and oppressed, against the Japanese occupiers and later also against home-grown dictators, and stood up for democracy and human rights. She plays a major part in the social system today, has established universities and runs many social institutions such as hospitals, children’s and old people’s homes, and cares for the forgotten and the outcasts of society.

What role has South Korea to play in the future of Southeast Asia and what are the special prayer intentions our South Korean fellow Christians would wish to commend to us?

The future has already long since begun in South Korea, especially in regard to its unparalleled economic development. As the economic powerhouse of the region, it has gained admittance to the club of the economic powers and established itself as an Asian heavyweight.

With all this rapid development, however, the development of the individual has in many areas been neglected. Often tradition is forgotten, every novelty pursued, and in the modern “balli-balli (quickly-quickly) society” humanity has suffered first of all. For many people the riches came overnight and before they had learnt how to handle riches. Both for the winners and for the losers in this game, the anxiety over status and the pressure to succeed have been unbearable. Social climbing and social fall are often very close together here.


Among the important intentions for your prayers for Korea, apart from the constant need to pray for peace, reconciliation and reunification, one might include some less popular and in some cases even toboo social and political concerns. For example a prayer for a “deceleration” and a lessening of the intolerable pressure that is exerted from top to bottom within our bone-hard society. Or perhaps the way society is torn apart between tradition and modernity, poor and rich, progressive and conservative forces.

ACN has a long history in South Korea. As early as the 1960s Father Werenfried van Straaten, our founder, visited this country – at that time still deeply scarred by the War – and prompted a wave of generosity for Korea in Europe. Can you tell us a little of how this help has unfolded since then?

Before I returned to Korea in May, I scoured through the archives in Königstein. In hundreds of project requests, annual reports, and of course the Mirror newsletter,  you can find innumerable testimonies to the commitment of Father Werenfried and ACN to Korea. Again and again I come across his footsteps, even today.

There is evidence of at least two journeys here by the “Bacon Priest”, in 1961 and 1962. He described Seoul as a “city of destitution”. How times have changed!

Thes developments are also more or less reflected in the projects of ACN in South Korea. We contributed with comparatively large sums to certain individual construction projects, such as the construction of the seminary in Suwon and the enlargement of the seminary in Seoul. But I also found numerous smaller projects, such as support for religious sisters and brothers, for books, for transport and vehicles, and regular support for Catholic institutes and individuals, all of which – thanks to the kindness of our benefactors – helped to build up the Korean Church of today. By now the Catholic Church in Korea is very well-off financially. Never before have I seen so many well-equipped and modern churches and parish centres. The seed, to which ACN also contributed, has now borne rich fruit.

You yourself are so to speak the latest “milestone” on this long road of help. How long has ACN actually had its own office in South Korea and what are your plans for the future?

Actually, the milestone is not yet fully planted! But against the background of the history of the Korean Church, her martyrs, her own experience of suffering, poverty, destruction and war, but also the awareness that things can change and that revival is possible, I think Korea, like almost no other country, has evolved a profound understanding of what ACN is all about. It is an understanding that I now hope to build on, here in Seoul.



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