South Korea and Catholicism




Fr. Emeterio Barcelon, SJ Fr. Emeterio Barcelon, SJ

South Korea is looked up to in their treatment of the Coronavirus. They have been testing Covid -19 daily in the thousands. Together with Singapore and Taiwan they have been the models for public health. There has been mutual good will between the Philippines and South Korea because we had an army unit under Fidel Ramos during the war that divided Korea into North and South Korea.  It was said that the Filipino contingent was renowned as fierce fighters that its soldiers used to spread beer bottles to identify them as positioned in an area. Those signals made the enemy afraid to attack. Korean tourists and businessmen are familiar with most Filipinos. They swarm all over Boracay.  Because of the prosperity of South Korea, we have plenty of tourists invading our warm beaches.  Together with them are industrious and full-of-initiative Korean businessmen. We also have a good sample of Koreans who just want to play golf or learn English.

There were a few Christians washed up on the shores of Korea early in the invasion by Europe in the seventeenth century. But it was in the late 18th century that a group of learned Koreans on a mission to China who made contact with Catholic priests. By the time the first Catholic priest came to Korea in 1777, he found that there were already 4,000 Catholics in the area. These Catholics suffered a number of persecutions so that the Church in Korea vies for the country with largest number of saints canonized by the Church. When Pope John Paul II came in the 1980s to Korea he came to canonize Andrew Kim Tae-gon (a parish priest) and companions as martyrs in one of the persecutions. Their parish priests have the reputation of being intellectual, many of them having doctorates.

“Kim-chi” is the flagship of Korean cuisine. But there are other delicious Korean dishes so that Korean restaurants are growing in this country. Christians are almost half of the country now. Catholics are about 15% and Protestants another 29%, with Buddhist about 45% and Confucianists about 3%. The Protestants had a big surge after the division with a number of good evangelical preachers. We do not know what is happening in North Korea. Presumably the churches have not done as well there. Now South Korea has three dioceses and a Cardinal. They also have a big Catholic University started by the Wisconsin Jesuits but now fully manned by Koreans.

As mentioned earlier, the Korean church suffered a number of persecutions starting from about 1801 when about 300 Christians were put to death for their faith. A severe one was in 1861 that lasted three years.  The Church was also persecuted by the Japanese who annexed Korea in 1910. But after independence, the church had tremendous growth from 1953. Together with Vietnam, Korea is now one of the leading Christian countries of Asia. Japan was the hope after the World War but the church there has not grown as expected. Missionaries from all over the world cane to Japan in the forties.  The faith has grown but not as much as in Korea.  <>