SEOUL/VATICAN, CITY/BEIJING – A nighttime landing at Seoul’s Gimpo Airport offers a cityscape heartening to any Christian proselytizer, with neon red crosses sprinkled across the capital marking the presence of churches.
The scene in a Buddhist-majority nation that once tortured thousands of Christians to death helps explain why Pope Francis chose South Korea for the first papal visit to Asia in 15 years. The country, along with neighbor China, is spurring Asia’s rise as one of the world’s fastest-growing Christian populations, helping counter the faith’s slowing growth in Europe and the United States.
“The Holy Father’s trip to Asia reflects his awareness of something that’s not on the radar for many Westerners: Christianity, both Roman Catholicism and various forms of Protestantism, is booming in Asia,” the Rev. John Wauck, a professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, said. “It is, you could say, a growth industry there.”
When Francis was a young Jesuit, he wanted to follow in the great Jesuit tradition and become a missionary in Asia. Health problems kept him home, but he has finally gotten his chance, arriving in South Korea on Thursday as the world’s most visible and popular Catholic missionary.
Francis’ trip also marks the first time a pope has been on the Korean Peninsula in a quarter century. He is the first pontiff to visit South Korea since Pope John Paul II in 1989 and he shares some of the same popular appeal as the “rock star” pope, whose visit fueled a surge in the faith among Koreans.
Banners welcoming Francis dot the streets of Seoul while T-shirts, statuettes and other memorabilia are on sale at stores across the city. Tedora, an Italian jewelry brand, is selling special edition earrings and bracelets enhanced by “the holiness of the Vatican,” according to its Facebook page, somewhat incongruously for a pontiff dubbed “The People’s Pope” by Time Magazine for his preaching of humility and defense of the poor.
“A growing (Catholic) community has a lot of vibrancy and life. He will get an extraordinary reception. It will easily be similar to Pope John Paul II,” Monsignor Robert J. Wister, a professor of church history at Seton Hall University’s Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology, predicted ahead of the pope’s trip. “The numbers (of people) that turn out will be off the charts.”
Francis’ South Korea tour kicked off what is expected to be a very Asian-focused year for the 77-year-old pontiff: He will travel to Sri Lanka and the Philippines in January and there are rumors of a trip to Japan next year as well.
Why Asia? Francis himself has said he must go because Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI never managed to visit the region during his eight-year pontificate. But more to the point, Asia is the future of the Catholic Church.
Despite being a minority religion in every Asian nation except the Philippines, the Catholic Church baptizes more Catholics in Asia every year than in traditionally Christian Europe, according to Vatican statistics.
In 2001 there were 44,446 priests in Asia; by 2012 the number had soared to 60,042. While Africa saw a similar surge in vocations, the number of Europe’s priests shrank from 206,761 to 186,489 in the same time frame.
The last pontiff to visit the region, John Paul II, said on several occasions that while Christianity was sowed in Europe in the first millennium and in the Americas and Africa in the second, the third millennium belonged to Asia.
“The pope wants to refresh the evangelization of Asia, which was a major theme that John Paul II had very much in his heart,” the Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, head of the Vatican-affiliated miss-ionary news agency AsiaNews, said. “Going to meet the young people of Asia means to go find the future of Asia.”
And Francis will find young people. The main reason for the trip is to participate in the Asian version of World Youth Day, the big Catholic youth festival. Young Catholics from some 23 Asian countries are expected to attend. While their numbers won’t approach the millions who turned out for Francis’ first World Youth Day in Brazil last year, organizers expect several thousand.
South Korea, among Asian nations, offers particularly fertile ground for Francis. Unlike in many other countries in Asia and Latin America, Catholicism is holding its own against the spread of evangelical churches, which have seen their reputation in the country tainted by everything from cases of financial misdeeds to links to the Sewol ferry tragedy.
After the Sewol sinking on April 16 that killed more than 300 people, mostly high school students, authorities revealed the ferry company was run by Yoo Byung-eun, the leader of a Christian group called Guwon, or redemption.
Police twice raided the group’s 230,000-sq.-meter compound south of Seoul seeking to arrest Yoo, who taught followers that they needed to dedicate their wealth to him to achieve salvation. Yoo’s badly decomposed body was discovered on July 22, the cause of death undetermined.
“Yoo amassed his wealth by convincing his followers that the end of the world is near and that redemption is possible only if they accept God through his teachings and dedicate their wealth to the sect,” the Rev. Chung Dong-sup, a former member of the Guwon sect, said in an interview. “He succeeded in convincing his followers that his business empire is a work of God and that they should dedicate all they can to it because working for those business ventures is as good as serving God.”
In many ways, South Korea’s church is the model for Catholicism on the continent and beyond: In fewer than 50 years, Catholics have gone from about 1 percent of the South’s population of 50 million to more than 10 percent today. The local church estimates that it might count 20 percent of the population by 2020, given that, on average, more than 100,000 Koreans are baptized every year.
“Catholicism is especially luring young Koreans, attracted by priests being more vocal on social issues and far less authoritarian in their attitudes,” Tark Ji-il, a theology professor at the Busan Presbyterian University, said in an interview. “The pope’s visit could also be a crisis for Protestant churches, whose public images have deteriorated over the past decade.”
According to a 2005 census by the South Korean government, the most recent to include religious data, the number of Protestants dipped 2 percent to 8.6 million in 2005 from a decade earlier. The number of Catholics, however, surged 42 percent to 5.1 million over the same period. Buddhism held the biggest portion with 10.7 million followers, or 23 percent of the country’s population at the time.
Once a country that welcomed missionaries to help spread the faith, South Korea now sends its own priests and nuns abroad to evangelize other countries. Francis has brought with him a call for young Catholics to take up the missionary charge themselves, spreading the faith on a continent where the ranks of the Catholic Church are small but rapidly swelling.
Earlier this year, Francis himself tapped a Korean priest to be an auxiliary bishop in his native Buenos Aires, one of the nearly 1,000 Korean priests, nuns and religious brothers currently on mission outside of Korea.
“On this continent, the church may be small but it grows 4 to 5 percent a year,” Cervellera said. “There are abundant vocations, people who are decided in their faith, so it could be in some way a model for all the other churches.”
Yet South Korea also represents a remarkable anomaly in the 2,000-year history of the Catholic faith.
Unlike most countries where missionary priests brought Catholicism and spread it, South Korea’s church is uniquely homegrown. Members of Korea’s noble classes discovered the faith in the 18th century by reading books by the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci that they brought back from China. Their interest spread, until finally the first Korean was baptized in Beijing in 1784.
“The Gospel in Korea wasn’t brought by conquerors or missionaries,” noted Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican No. 2, in the introduction of “Young People and Martyrs in Asia: Pope Francis’ Mission in Korea,” a book about the church’s unique history. “This is valid for other Asian countries, where the Christian faith often finds trouble and obstacles and is still seen as a foreign faith,” he wrote.
It’s an important point for Francis to stress during his trip, with an eye to countries such as China where the Catholic Church in general and the Vatican in particular are still viewed with skepticism.
Despite its homegrown Korean roots, Catholicism wasn’t immune in Korea from the dramatic persecution that was waged against Christians across Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries, echoing attacks against Christians today in parts of the Middle East and Africa. An estimated 10,000 Korean Catholics were killed by the Joseon Dynasty.
“They were considered to be in opposition to the social system of Korea at the time,” said Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
On Saturday, Francis beatified 124 of these martyrs in South Korea. Another 103 were canonized by St. John Paul II during his 1984 visit, the first occasion he traveled to the Korean Peninsula.
Aside from the Asian youth festival, the other key event of the pope’s trip is a Mass for peace and reconciliation he will celebrate on the final day of his tour, Monday, in Seoul’s main cathedral. Francis hopes the message will resonate on the divided Korean Peninsula.
Among Koreans with a history of persecution in attendance will be a small number of women who were used as sex slaves by the Japanese military before and during World War II. The archdiocese of Seoul also invited a delegation of Christians from North Korea, but Pyongyang informed organizers last week that they wouldn’t be attending.
The pope’s visit, meanwhile, appears unlikely to reset relations with Beijing either. Days after Chinese officials blocked local Catholics from seeing the pope in South Korea, it’s still unclear who was behind the action or why it was taken.
Experts on the Chinese church said the travel bans were likely the work of overzealous local Communist Party bureaucrats responsible for religious affairs.
However, the central government in Beijing has offered no clarification on the matter, underscoring its discomfort about how to deal with the Vatican. The sides have no formal ties and are locked in a dispute over who has the right to appoint bishops and overall religious freedoms under the officially atheistic ruling party.
Some reports said about 50 Catholic clergy and laypeople were stopped at Chinese airports earlier in the week. The Catholic website AsiaNews estimated about 80 young people were staying away from the events in South Korea after warnings of unspecified consequences if they participated. It said a number of Chinese priests residing in South Korea had also been called home prior to Francis’ arrival.
“This was an overreaction on the part of local officials who were nervous about what might happen if they were allowed to travel to South Korea,” said Anthony Lam of the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong, which closely monitors the church in mainland China. “This kind of so-called preventive measure is totally unnecessary.”
Officials responsible for religion and other sensitive issues in China often act on their own out of fear of being held accountable if anything embarrassing should occur, said Lionel Jensen, an expert on Chinese religion and nationalism at the University of Notre Dame. “I don’t think (the central government in) Beijing wants to be involved in something like this.”
It remained unclear whether any of the Chinese Catholics had been detained or how many had made it to South Korea.
Francis’ first visit to Asia had spurred hopes for improved relations between Beijing and the Holy See after his plane was permitted to fly through Chinese airspace. China had refused to let John Paul II fly through its airspace when he visited the Korean Peninsula in 1989.
The Vatican sent the telegram from Francis’ chartered plane as it entered Chinese airspace early Thursday, following Vatican protocol that calls for the pope to send such greetings whenever he flies over a foreign country.
Such telegrams usually go unnoticed. But the gesture took on unique significance because the Vatican and China have no diplomatic relations, and therefore no official contacts, and because of Beijing’s refusal to let St. John Paul II fly through its airspace.
Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said Friday it appeared the telegram never arrived. The Chinese Embassy to Italy asked the Holy See for a copy of the telegram, saying it hadn’t received it, and a copy was immediately dispatched by the Vatican.
Despite the glitch, China’s Foreign Ministry responded to reports of the telegram with a statement Thursday saying it remained committed to establishing a “constructive dialogue” and improving ties.
However, China’s entirely state-run media has imposed a virtual news blackout on Francis’ trip, ensuring the public at large would know little about his activities in South Korea.
Jensen and Lam said there appears to be a debate within President Xi Jinping’s government over how to deal with growing religious belief in China. While some see religion as a force for social stability, they are opposed by communist hard-liners wary of any challenge to the party’s authority, they said.
“It looks as if there is a changing attitude in Beijing about how to handle religion,” Jensen said. “The pope being in South Korea is causing some stirring.”
China severed relations with the Holy See in 1951 after the Communist Party took power and set up its own church outside the pope’s authority. China persecuted the church for years until restoring a degree of religious freedom and freeing imprisoned priests in the late 1970s.
Relations have been tense over Beijing’s demand that it have the right to appoint bishops, even those unacceptable to the Vatican. The Holy See says that key prerogative belongs to it alone and the disagreement tops the list of issues blocking reconciliation.
In a telling sign that Francis is toeing a very delicate political line with China, he artfully dodged a question posed to him Friday by a young man from Hong Kong about what could be done to help the faithful in mainland China. The question was one of several posed to the pope during an informal gathering in Solmoe, South Korea, where young Catholics from across the region were gathered for an Asian Catholic youth festival.
The pope wasn’t the only one to dodge a question about China, however. For the second day in a row, Lombardi, despite being the Vatican’s spokesman, himself avoided reporters’ questions about whether a China leg had ever been in the cards for this trip or whether informal talks were held earlier this summer between the Chinese government and the Holy See.
Catholic laypeople and priests who flocked to a Mass on Friday at Beijing’s oldest church nevertheless said they felt closer to the pope, and all expressed hopes for a papal visit in the not-too-distant future.
“I believe this is a step forward in advancing communication,” said the Rev. Mathew Zhen Xuebin, secretary-general of the Beijing diocese. “We have hope that one day the two countries of China and the Vatican will establish diplomatic ties and that the pope will be able to visit China.”
Parishioners at the weather-beaten 400-year-old Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception said they were following Francis’ visit as best they could.
Maria Mian, a retired teacher in her 70s, said she felt his presence in Asia would give impetus to a greater Beijing-Vatican dialogue, although she added, “Things will come along gradually.”
Night watchman Xu Yong, 35, said he was hoping for some form of divine intervention. “This is not something that men can solve on their own,” Xu said. “We will need God’s help.”