“The Koreans are very excited and full with joy,” Fr. Denis Kim, S.J., a professor of sociology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, told CNA.
“There is also an expectation for a renewal of the Church in Korea. In other words, the Holy Father can bring refreshment and also give inspiration, a sense of direction to the Korean Church.”
Fr. Kim is a professor of sociology at the Jesuits' Roman university, and studied at the National University in Seoul, among other institutions.
He is convinced that the papal visit, slated for Aug. 14-18, will be important not only for his own country, but for all of Asia, where the people of Japan and China yearn for reconciliation in their own countries.
“The Church can contribute more, and in this regard Holy Father can inspire and stimulate; so there is tremendous excitement and expectation for his visit.”
The Church in South Korea has grown exponentially, marking 70 percent growth over the last decade. From 1949 to 2010, it expanded from 0.6 percent of the population, to 10.9 percent.
Fr. Kim suggested two reasons for the attraction of the Church.
“First there is a special hunger; so if you ask the Koreans who recently became Catholic, they will say: ‘I became Catholic because I wanted to find peace, peace of mind and heart.'”
Unlike other countries in which scandals connected to the Church prevail in media reports, she is portrayed as a positive force for South Korean society.
“Another reason for her attractiveness is that the Catholic Church has acquired credibility and a moral authority in comparison to other religions in the country,” Fr. Kim said.
“When you compare it with other Asian countries, the growth of the Church in Korea is really exceptional.”
Pope Francis' style wins over the hearts of the Korean people, he said, with his “reaching out, and his very honest way of speaking and interacting with others and his respect for them, especially for the marginalized and the poor. This really attracts the younger generations.”
“Therefore, the best message is the messenger himself.”
“Usually the younger generations are treated as object for mission, like students who need to learn and to be educated,” he explained, but Pope Francis “invites them, as a companion, for a mission.”
“Therefore younger people feel they are respected, they are recognized and they are invited to this very important mission, as companions.”
“We need new forms of discipleship,” Fr. Kim said. “New forms of martyrdom, new forms of witness.”
During his trip, Pope Francis will beatify 124 Korean martyrs who were persecuted in the 19th century, and who are role models for today's Catholics on the peninsula.
“We need disciples who are not afraid to witness the faith in this contemporary democratic and capitalistic world.”
The Church can contribute her part in facing such challenges as “a situation of insecurity of the youth, a precarious job situation, fragmented families, high divorce and suicide rates, and the lack of feeling understood among the youth,” continued Fr. Kim.
As a Pope focusing time and again on peace, Francis will have the possibility to set concrete signs of reconciliation for Korea, a divided country.
“A call for reconciliation during his message, and a call to reduce the arms race, that would be very significant.”
Fr. Kim also suggested that Pope Francis could encourage the bishops' conferences of Korea, Japan, and China “to walk together more closely for peace.”
In the run up to Pope Francis visit to South Korea next month, a Korean priest said he expects ground breaking changes there in terms of peace and the Church’s service to society.
South Korea, Pope in Korea