During the Feb. 23 Mass of Thanksgiving for the creation of new cardinals, Pope Francis offered words of affection for the newly-elevated South Korean cardinal’s home country.
“I love Korea,” were the unexpected words of Pope Francis at the sign of peace to Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-Jung, who recounted the moment later at a Feb. 25 press conference. The cardinal said he promptly replied, “The Korean people love you, Holy Father!”
Cardinal Yeom, archbishop of Seoul, South Korea, and apostolic administrator of Pyongyang, North Korea, was made a cardinal by Pope Francis during the recent consistory on Feb. 22.
Three days later, at the press conference at the Korean College in Rome, he commented on the experience, as well as on the situation of the Catholic Church in Korea.
“Only God can fill the hearts with love and give life meaning,” were his opening words, before going on to enumerate three main challenges facing the Church in Korea.
All three major struggles faced by the Church are tied to the state of family life, he said. First, the family in Korea faces the aftermath of 40 years of birth control. Despite the fact that South Korea did not suffer from a one-child policy like China, many couples are reluctant to have children.
A second concern is the overall aging of society, and the third challenge involves couples experiencing great indecisiveness and waiting until their 30s to get married.
“This is especially surprising since the family is generally held up as a strong ideal,” explained the cardinal.
He did, however, express his joy at the recent attempt to reunite families that were divided by the separation of North and South Korea 60 years ago. Some 30,000 people applied for the “family reunion” held in a mountain resort in February. About 350 of them were chosen, with average age being 82 years old, the oldest participant 94.
“The Church can contribute to foster initiatives like this which give a sign of hope to young and old alike,” explained Cardinal Yeom.
He also revealed his high expectations for the Bishops Synod to be held this October in Rome, which will focus on the family. In addition, he mentioned his hope that Pope Francis will visit South Korea.
“Pope Benedict did not have the chance to visit Asia, so the time seems to have come now, for us to receive the Pope,” he said, adding that such a visit would strengthen the faith and saying that “we pray for him to come.”
The cardinal then went on to state briefly the history of the missionaries of South Korea, with the historically unique role of the laity. “South Korea is a country that received missionaries of the faith, and now sends missionaries out into the world,” he noted.
In the early 17th century, Catholicism was introduced by lay people, who traveled to Beijing, China, to be baptized by priests connected to the missions of the Jesuit Matteo Ricci. Christianity grew through the resilient practice of the people before it was outlawed in 1758.
Cardinal Yeom described how the first Mass was celebrated in the country on Easter night in 1791 by a priest who fell victim to the Catholic Persecution of 1801. The first Christians actually formed a village separate from civilization in order to be able to live as a Christian community.
Now, more than 200 years later, the Church in South Korea experiences a boom in conversions to Catholicism. Today, the Catholic population numbers roughly 15 percent of the population, alongside about 17 percent Protestants.
Religious orders enjoy a vast number of vocations and orders like the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres send out missionaries to China, Vietnam and Indonesia, as well as France.
“Korea is facing a new era of missions. One thousand missionaries have been sent out into the world,” observed Cardinal Yeom.
“Spreading the good news is fueled by the love for our country – because the Evangelizers love their Korea, they want to spread the good news of Christ’s Resurrection,” he said.
The message of Christianity touches the heart, the cardinal continued. “It fills the life that is void with hope; God’s love fills the emptiness in the hearts.”
“The human heart needs grace,” he concluded proclaiming that he will serve the Church in Korea “with Peter and under Peter.”