With South Korea in the rearview mirror, another success for Pope Francis

Pope Francis’ journey to South Korea from Aug. 13-18 inaugurated the first of three visits to Asian countries over the next five months and announced the pontiff’s clear focus on a continent that is home to 60 percent of the world’s population.

The pope’s third apostolic journey outside of Italy — and his first to Asia since his election in March 2013 — was officially to celebrate the Sixth Asian Youth Day and to beatify Paul Yun Ji-chung and his 123 companions, Koreans who died as martyrs for the Christian faith in the 18th and 19th centuries.

His message, however, was heard far beyond the confines of the divided Korean peninsula.

Pope Francis made clear from his very arrival in Seoul the close connection between the legacy of the martyrs and the developing faith life of young Catholics.

He said in his opening remarks when he was welcomed by Korean President Park Geun-hye, “These two celebrations complement one another. Korean culture understands well the inherent dignity and wisdom of our elders and honors their place in society ... A wise and great people do not only cherish their ancestral traditions, they also treasure their young, seeking to pass on the legacy of the past and to apply it to the challenges of the present.”

Korea stands as a special case in the phenomenal success story of Catholic growth in Asia. The Korean Church’s explosive rise in the last 50 years has stemmed from the spiritual bounty of Pope St. John Paul II’s visits in 1984 and 1989, the remarkable social work done by Catholics, including hospitals, homes for the elderly, schools and orphanages, and the key support given by Catholic leaders to the democracy movement in the 1970s and ’80s.

Today, millions of Korean Catholics hold the Church in great esteem, especially young people who regularly see politicians, musicians and sports stars publicly discussing their faith. And then there are the unique role of Korean laypeople and the heritage of the martyrs.

A lay movement

The emergence of the Church in Korea would have been impossible without the crucial work of laypeople.

The faith was not brought to the peninsula by foreign missionaries but was sought out by Korean nobles in the late 18th century after reading Christian texts. The first foreign priest was thus astonished to discover in 1791 a colony of 4,000 Catholics. Opposition to the new religion from the state was fierce, and across the next century more than 10,000 Christians died in persecutions.

Pope Francis acknowledged the exceptional participation of laypeople in Korea’s history.

“The Church in Korea,” he told a gathering of lay apostolates on Aug. 16, “as we all know, is heir to the faith of generations of lay persons who persevered in the love of Christ Jesus and the communion of the Church despite the scarcity of priests and the threat of severe persecution ... .

"Today, as ever, the Church needs credible lay witnesses to the saving truth of the Gospel, its power to purify and transform human hearts, and its fruitfulness for building up the human family in unity, justice and peace.”

Youth rise up

The Korean martyrs remain a particular source of pride to Korean Catholics.

Pope Francis spoke of their courage and their relevance to today during his beatification homily on Aug. 16 at a Mass attended by nearly 1 million Catholics.

“So often we today,” the pontiff declared, “can find our faith challenged by the world, and in countless ways we are asked to compromise our faith, to water down the radical demands of the Gospel and to conform to the spirit of this age. Yet the martyrs call out to us to put Christ first and to see all else in this world in relation to him and his eternal kingdom. They challenge us to think about what, if anything, we ourselves would be willing to die for.”

That was a particular message he gave to the tens of thousands of young people at the Aug. 17 closing Mass for Asian Youth Day, which brought together young Catholics from more than 30 Asian countries.

He told them not to succumb to the temptations of materialism but to “spend these years in building a holier, more missionary and humble Church.” He reminded them as well that they are not just the Church of the future but of the present and that they must express their faith in their daily lives and as participants in their own cultures.

“As young people not only in Asia,” he said, “but also as sons and daughters of this great continent, you have a right and duty to take full part in the life of your societies. Do not be afraid to bring the wisdom of faith to every aspect of social life! As Asians too, you see and love, from within, all that is beautiful, noble and true in your cultures and traditions. Yet as Christians, you also know that the Gospel has the power to purify, elevate and perfect this heritage.”

Unique touches

Pope Francis’ Korean trip was also replete with his now customary gestures and special moments.

He drove around Seoul in a compact Korean car, eschewed the papal helicopter to become the first pope to ride on a high speed bullet train, ate the Korean national dish of kimchi, held an impromptu Q&A session with the youth and posed for numerous “selfies” with enthralled young people.

The pope also consoled the families of the 300 victims of Korea’s recent ferry disaster, wore a symbolic yellow ribbon on his cassock in solidarity with them and personally baptized 62-year-old Lee Ho-Jin, who lost a child in the tragedy, at the nunciature, or papal embassy in Seoul.

Pope Francis left his mark on Korea with memorable homilies, impromptu encounters and moments of tender pastoral care. In a word, he was himself. One small event that perhaps forecasted the enduring legacy of the papal visit came when Lee Ho-Jin, just baptized by the hand of the pope, took as his baptismal name, “Francis.”

Read Matthew Bunson's full report in the Aug. 31 issue of OSV Newsweekly. 

Matthew Bunson is OSV's senior correspondent.