Catholicism flourishes in South Korea

Catholicism flourishes in South Korea

Richard Stokes

For some years I taught at TAFE colleges in Queensland and after a brief stint in Indonesia in 2002, I was offered a job teaching English in Gwangju, South Korea, beginning in June 2003. My first appointment was to a fairly large school in Pung Am, on the south side of Gwangju.

A year later I took up a job with a smaller school at Ilgok on the north side. I worked there for a second year before returning to Australia. The director of this second school, a delightful teacher named Jasmine, became close friends with my wife and myself.

Recently we returned to stay with her over the Christmas-New Year break. Jasmine is married to a Chinese named Richard who is fluent in Korean, English and Japanese. While in South Korea we bought a car, and on Sundays drove to our old parish in Pung Am, a new suburb on the southern side of Gwangju about half an hour away.

At my first Mass in South Korea in 2003 I had met Fr Joe Pius, who spoke English (and Latin). I found out later he was a hero of the pro-democracy rebellion of May 1980, centred on Gwangju. So I was able to make my confession in the months to come, not an easy prospect in a foreign country.

Korean Catholicism is different from Australia's in many respects. People don't kneel, they don't eat meat on Friday (by order of the bishops), women cover their heads in church, they bow instead of genuflecting and wear their Sunday best, even during the week - no one ever turned up in jeans or shorts.

When the Korean War broke out in 1950 the Catholic population was estimated at one percent. Today it is 10 percent. Protestants are quite strong also. But there are many conversions from Protestantism to Catholicism and the Church in South Korea is growing vigorously.

Every two or three months, I would notice a group of about 30 adults standing before the altar during Mass. It was explained to me that these were converts brought into the Church by the Legion of Mary.

The church, built with the new suburb of Pung Am (and reportedly about three years old when I arrived there) was fairly utilitarian, as is often the case when the Church moves into a new area. It seated something like 500 people. On Sundays, the church was packed to overflowing, and folding chairs had to be brought in and placed in the aisles at the side of the church.

I can remember Fr Joe's sadness that some people did not attend Mass every Sunday. I don't know what percentage attend Mass in South Korea, but I did not have the heart to tell him that attendance in Queensland is down to around 10 percent.

Towards the end of our stay the church was pulled down. Fr Joe wanted to have a more substantial one built before his retirement. For a time we had Mass in an upper floor of a commercial building.

Queensland contrast

Over Christmas 2006 and New Year 2007 we visited our old parish to catch up with friends. The new church is magnificent, seating about 1,000. We arrived a little late on Christmas Eve and could not get a seat. However, we managed to squeeze into the balcony, which by itself held about the same number of people as do many of our local churches in Queensland.

Coming from Queensland, we found it a great comfort to attend Mass without abuses, without arbitrary changes to the prayers of the Mass.

A new priest had replaced our friend, who had gone into retirement. Some choir members took us to meet the parish priest who looked around 30 years old.

The choir at Pung Am was outstanding, being led by a professor of music. The hymns were all appropriate to the Mass, with none of the banality we have to endure in Australia.

Weekday Mass attracted about 50 to 100 people, even when they had to trudge through the snow.

Before leaving South Korea, I obtained a copy of the Catholic Year Book. This showed close on 2,000 seminarians with about 200 priests added each year to the dioceses. My own diocese, Gwangju (around the size of Brisbane), alone ordained 18 new priests in 2006.

Our second parish, where we lived during our second year in Korea, was Samgak, on the northern edge of Gwangju. Samgak has two priests, the parish priest, Fr Dominic, who was in his early thirties, and his assistant in his late twenties. As with Fr Joe Pius, we became close friends.

After daily Mass, the congregation would split into small groups, going into the rooms around the church for the rosary. On occasion we saw the rosary said at the entrance to the church, in front of the statue of Our Blessed Mother, and led by the priests.

Sunday Mass lasted typically 90 minutes, of which half comprised the homily. Daily Mass could take an hour. At Samgak we had around 100 people every day.

I was surprised to see the number of nuns. They were everywhere. Vocations are apparently so plentiful that nuns run things like the Catholic bookshops.

We spent just two weeks in South Korea on our latest visit and on our way home we called in to see a close friend just south of Seoul, at a town called Suwon. The local church where we went to Mass was at Yuljeon. The church there also had a young priest, again about 30. He told us his brother was in Australia.

A number of priests mentioned Australia to us, and some said they would like to go there. Given the large numbers of priests coming from their seminaries, this should not be too difficult. There is no reason why a Korean priest would be unsuited to administering the sacraments in Australia. After all, we have had many foreign priests who have done a good job.

If we want to have good and holy priests and more people at Mass, shouldn't we be seeing what we can learn from the South Koreans?

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