Thomas Han Hong-soon served from 2010 to 2013 as South Korea's diplomat to the Vatican, and spoke to CNA recently; he also said that he expects the Pope's appeals for unity and reconciliation across the demilitarized zone to have a significant weight.
Han's tenure as ambassador was marked by his efforts to encourage a papal visit to the nation to beatify 124 Korean martyrs.
“My task is accomplished, thanks to the Lord and to everyone in the Holy See who has collaborated to achieve this task.”
According to the ambassador, the Church in Korea is above all one of mission.
“In Korea, at the end of the Mass, the priest does not say: 'The Mass is ended, go in peace.' He says: ‘The Mass is ended. Let us go and evangelize the world.’ This is how the lay faithful are pushed to mission within their daily life, always joined with the Pope and the bishops, and so collaborating with priests and religious brothers and sisters.”
This missionary push has brought a remarkable increase to the Church in Korea. In 1960, Catholics were about 0.5 million, two percent of the population. Today, Catholics are 5.5 million, constituting 11 percent of the population.
“South Korea is perhaps the only country in the world where the Catholic Church grows as much as the economy. It is often said that a country gets wealthier as much as the faith decreases – this phrase is dismissed by Korea's situation,” said Han.
The ambassador quoted a survey by a Buddhist research institute which foresaw that in 2044, there will be 25 million Catholics in Korea – 56 percent of the population.
The growth of the Church in Korea is also due to her strong commitment to social justice and human rights issues, an outcome of the quick economic increase of the country.
“The Church in Korea has vigorously committed to the poor and oppressed people, promoting their human rights with words and actions, constantly making charitable works for those most in need,” Han recounted.
According to the ambassador, this is the reason why “the prophetic role of the Church in Korea is unanimously acknowledged within and without the borders of Korea.”
Han also stressed that the Church has gained the esteem of the Korean people also because “the Church in South Korea tries to improve the life conditions of the people of North Korea, aiming at eventually evangelizing North Koreans, and for this purpose South Koreans constantly pray for reconciliation and unification of the country, while they also try to provide humanitarian supplies to the North.”
In the ambassador’s opinion, Pope Francis' trip will be “of great help” for the North-South dialogue, since “his appeal for reconciliation and unity between North and South will have an important impact on the international community.”
“The Korean people will certainly appreciate Pope Francis’ words, and they hope that his words will be able to promote a cooperation among all the nations, especially the powerful countries that advocate for Korean unification,” Han said.
In the next 20 years, he said, the Church in Korea will continue to grow, but “it is almost sure that it will also have to face the problems posed by the integration of the country that will be unified. The Church will have to make huge efforts for the authentic humanization of the Korean peninsula. It means that the Church will have to broaden the horizon of evangelization, and to prepare for the mission to China.”
In South Korea this week, Pope Francis will meet a Church young, founded on martyrs, suffering, dynamic, and missionary a former South Korean ambassador to the Holy See has said.
South Korea, Pope in Korea