A woman prays during Mass at a church in Seoul, Korea, Feb. 12, 2013. (CNS photo/Kim Hong-Ji, Reuters)
official. The volo papale, or papal
airplane, will take off from Rome’s Fiumicino Airport in mid-August. This time
it will be headed for the heart of Asia. Pope Francis will visit Daejeon, South
Korea from August 14 to 18. Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican
Press Office, made the announcement in a statement issued March 10. The
official comunicato reads:
Welcoming the invitation from the President of the Republic and
the Korean bishops, His Holiness Francis will make an Apostolic Trip to the
Republic of Korea from 14 to 18 August 2014, on the occasion of the Sixth Asian
Youth Day, to be held in the diocese of Daejeon.
The official logo for Pope Francis' August trip to South Korea (CNS photo/Archdiocese of Seoul)
will mark the first papal visit to the Korean peninsula in more than two
decades. Pope John Paul II visited there on two separate occasions: in the
spring of 1984 and again in the autumn of 1989. For his part, Pope Benedict XVI
did not elect to visit South Korea during almost a decade as pope.
of Pope John Paul II’s visits attracted record numbers of pilgrims. Traveling
to Seoul in 1989 for the International Eucharistic Congress, he led one of the
largest outdoor gatherings on the Asian continent: some one million Catholics
attended the congress’ closing liturgical celebration on October 8, 1989.
However, that record was broken in 1995 when he visited Manila, Philippines on
the occasion of the Tenth International World Youth Day. More than five million
individuals attended that eventthe largest outdoor gathering in human history.
A vibrant Church
Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis could attract record-setting numbers of
pilgrims. After all, the Catholic Church is alive and well in South Korea. In
fact, over the last decade, Catholicism has witnessed an incredible growth
spurt there. Church enrollment has swelled some 70 percent. Now, more than five
million South Koreansabout 11 percent of the populationare members of the Roman
Catholic Church. That number continues to increase.
situation in South Korea stands in stark contrast to the state of affairs in
other parts of the world. In Europe, for example, church attendance and birth
rates have taken a nosedive while atheist secularism has swept the continent.
Whereas scholars describe Europe as a “post-Christian” culture caught in the
throes of a demographic winter, other regions seem to be in the middle of a
golden age of evangelization. Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of
History at Baylor University and co-director of Baylor’s Program on Historical
Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion, told the Italian
newspaper Avvenire in 2009 that
Europe is coming to the “end of a kind of great monopoly” on Christianity,
since “Christianity is notably rooted today in Africa, Asia, and Latin America,
especially among the poor.”
course, time will tell whether Pope Francis’ visit will make a contribution to
the continued success of the Church in Asia. But the announcement of his
intention to visit that part of the world sends some significant signals about
the possible future course of his pontificate. To round out the point, his
proposed pilgrimage might indicate an important shift in papal geopolitical priorities.
A look to “the ends of the
Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI mostly restricted their early papal
pilgrimages to traditional Catholic strongholds, including visits to Mexico,
Ireland, Germany, Poland, and Spain. Pope Francis is doing something different.
Aside from some visits around Rome and the Italian peninsula, Pope Francis
hasn’t made any European trips at all; his international travel at this point
has consisted of last summer’s trip to Rio de Janeiro and his trip last month to
the Holy Land. His first trip inside of Europe, but outside of Italy, will take
him to the southeastern border of the continent; in September, he will visit
Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s homeland of Albania.
point is not that Francis is the first pope to reach out to the extremities of
the planet. Rather, he is the first pope to reach out so quickly.
doubt, St. John Paul II’s pontificate packed a global punch. He circled the
earth, putting more than enough miles on the popemobile to make four trips
around the globe or to travel half the distance to the moon. His image was
broadcast or reprinted more times than that of the Mona Lisa. And, although he
was the first non-Italian pope in more than five centuries, he spoke his native
Polish just as well as the Spanish that connected him with more than 500
million people living in Latin America.
Benedict XVI’s pontificate was not very different. Between 2006 and 2009, he
kept pace with his predecessor, making almost the equivalent number of foreign
trips as John Paul II did at the same age. In fact, Pope Benedict XVI averaged
some three trips abroad per year during that chapter of his pontificate.
it took time for both John Paul II and Benedict XVI to establish a global papal
profile. When John Paul was elected pope in the autumn of 1978, papal
globe-trotting was all but non-existent; Pope Paul VI’s visit to the United
Nations in New York in 1965 had been unprecedented. Indeed, during the first
chapter of his pontificate, John Paul II focused his attention on the situation
in Europe, specifically the problem of communism in Eastern and Central Europe.
Two decades later, Pope Benedict XVI focused on Europe and the problem of
Western secularization. While he did visit other parts of the world, including
Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, Benedict understood the central
mission of his pontificate to be the restoration of Christian faith in the
heart of old Europe.
his part, Francis is blazing a new path. Even during these earliest stages of
the “Francis Revolution,” the pope from “the ends of the Earth” is traveling to
Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia before his pontificate even hits the
An increasingly global cardinalate
that is the reason four of the eight members Francis selected for his council
of cardinal advisers were from the developing world: Cardinal Francisco
Javier ErrÁzuriz Ossa of Santiago de Chile, Chile; Cardinal Oswald
Gracias of Bombay, India; Cardinal Laurent
Monsengwo Pasinya of Kinshasa, Congo; and Cardinal Óscar
Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. It
could be that that same confidence in the evangelical energies of developing
nations led him to select
almost half of his first round of cardinals from those regions, as well. Last
February, the Pope raised 19 bishops and archbishops to the College of
Cardinals, nine of whom come from the developing world. Pope Francis has also
appointed archbishops and lay specialists in economic matters from the global
south to staff his new Economic Council.
that in February when he elevated the Primate of Korea to the College of
Cardinals. Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung is the archbishop of Seoul and the apostolic
administrator of Pyongyang, North Korea. Seoul, where most of South Korea’s
Catholic population is gathered, is witnessing significant growth for the
Catholic Church. In 2011 alone, more than 134,000 residents of Seoul requested
the sacrament of baptism.
spiritual leader, Cardinal Yeom, brings an important witness to his episcopal
office: he is the great-great grandson of Peter Yeom Seok-tae and Kim Maria,
who were executed for their faith in 1850. Despite religious persecution, the
Yeoms have maintained active religious faith through five generations. As
Primate of Korea, their descendant now presides over the faith life of some 15
dioceses, including three archdioceses and a military ordinariate. On a peninsula
where historic tensions divide north and the south, and in a part of the world
where religious persecution remains a reality, the witness of families like the
Yeoms is indispensable.
receipt of the confirmation of the papal visit, Cardinal Yeom released a
I would like to express my warmest welcome to Pope Francis’ visit
to Korea. I am very grateful that
the Holy Father has kept in mind the young people of Asia and the Korean
faithful and has decided to travel such [a] long way to our country. On the Mass of Thanksgiving for the
creation of new cardinals, the Holy Father offered words of affection to me
that he really loves Korea; now that he is really coming to our country, I can
feel the abundant grace of God. The Holy Father’s Papal visit to Korea is [a]
great joy and blessing to our country.
Cardinal Yeom also offered prayers that Pope
Francis’ visit will foster “reconciliation and peace [in] the Korean
Peninsula” and bring hope to “the poor and the marginalized people”an issue
close to the heart of the Pope.
Francis’ visit with Cardinal Yeom and his flock indicates something else, too.
The context of the Pope’s pastoral visits offer some hint about how he assesses
the future and promise of the new geopolitical situation.
John Paul II and Benedict XVI took advantage of opportunities to connect with
20- and 30-something Catholics. In their numerous apostolic pilgrimages around
the globe, both men sought out the future of the Church, seizing the current
generation’s attention and schooling it in the wisdom of tradition. To be sure,
many of these young people owe their sense of the Faith to those two men, but
Pope Francis is taking that youth-oriented commitment to a new level.
Francis is placing encounters with young people at the very heart of his
international visits. In Rio de Janeiro last summer, the Holy Father presided
over the World Youth Day celebrations, which more than three million pilgrims,
many in their 20s and 30s, attended. When he lands in South Korea in August, he
will attend for the Sixth Asian Youth Day. There, he’ll have the chance to encounter,
on a personal level, the future of the Church, just as he did in Brazil. There
have also been indications that Pope Francis intends to visit the United States
in the fall of 2015 for the celebration of the World Meeting of Families. In
all these trips, the Holy Father is demonstrating that what gets him out of the
Vatican and on the move are meetings with young people and their families.
represents quite a change from the modus
operandi of his predecessors. Other than the International World Youth Days
that occurred between 1987 and 2011, there were no papal trips undertaken for
the express reason of meeting with young Catholics. It would seem that Pope
Francis is setting a different tone. His pilgrimages “to the margins” have the
principal aim of seeking out the younger generation, the future of the Church.
Even when he visited Israel last month, the predominant focus of his message
was on the future of the Church, the Middle East, and what Jews, Muslims, and
Christians owe future generations.
the reason for the Pope’s globe-trotting in search of the face of the future of
the Church? The answer is simple. Young people give him hope. And he needs hope
as he continues to bring reform to the oldest monarchical
office in Europe. As he stated in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, “Young people call us to renewed and expansive hope, for
they represent new directions for humanity and open us up to the future, lest
we cling to a nostalgia for structures and customs which are no longer
life-giving in today’s world” (108).
Pope Francis will attend the Sixth Asian Youth Day in Daejeon,
South Korea two months before his meeting with the Third Extraordinary General
Assembly of the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican. The meeting will constitute a
sort of international summit of some of the highest-ranking leaders of the
Catholic Church, and will be the first meeting of its kind in more than two
decades. On the table for discussion will be the “Pastoral Challenges of the
Family in the Context of Evangelization.” Together, the Pope and the bishops
will review and evaluate the Church’s pastoral outreach to families around the
globe. Front and center in their discussions will be the transmission of the
Christian faith through the life of families. While Christian communities in Europe
continue to decline, Pope Francis could be looking to prelates from other
regions of the world and the people they shepherd as signs of hope for the
future of the Church. As the Pope readies himself for his first synod as head
of the Catholic Church, what he tells Asians gathered in Daejeon in August
could indicate what he hopes to be able to accomplish in Rome in October.
Bishops in Asia, and indeed around the world,
will be listening and watching.