Francis and South Korea

In his first international visits, the Pope looks to “the ends of the Earth” and to the young.

It’s 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)

The trip 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.

Both 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 event—the largest outdoor gathering in human history.

A vibrant Church

Like 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 Koreans—about 11 percent of the population—are members of the Roman Catholic Church. That number continues to increase.

The 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.”

Of 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 Earth”

Both 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.

The 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.

Without 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.

Pope 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.

However, 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.

For 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 two-year mark.

An increasingly global cardinalate

Perhaps 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.

He did 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.

Their 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.

Upon receipt of the confirmation of the papal visit, Cardinal Yeom released a statement:

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.

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.

Future hopes

Both 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.

Pope 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.

That 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.

What’s 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.

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About John Paul Shimek 0 Articles
John Paul Shimek is a Roman Catholic theologian and a specialist on Vatican affairs. In March 2013, he reported from Rome on the election of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope in the history of the Catholic Church.