Can South Korean Catholics evangelize Asia?

Seoul South Korea Credit Sean Pavone Shutterstock CNA Sean Pavone via Shutterstock.

Catholics in South Korea have a unique position to evangelize, one scholar says.

"Since the 1990s, the Vatican has been encouraging the Korean Church to take responsibility for evangelizing the rest of Asia," Prof. Kirsteen Kim said. "Not only the quality of its witness but also practical considerations lie behind this."

Kim, a professor of theology and world Christianity at Leeds University in the United Kingdom, profiled the Church in South Korea and its missionary activity in the U.K. newspaper The Catholic Herald Nov. 11.

About 200 South Korean priests are serving as missionaries in other countries, while 400 serve overseas Korean communities. The Korean Mission Society, founded in 1975, has sent more than 70 priests abroad.

Another 700 Koreans, mostly religious women, are serving in missionary congregations overseas.

There are five million Catholics in South Korea, over 10 percent of the population. They tend to be above average in socio-economic status.

The country has a good reputation around the world. Its people are highly educated and its seminaries train many priests from other countries. The country's culture, in the form of music, soap operas, fashions and films, is popular in places like China.

Tensions with North Korea, of course, cannot be ignored.

"Korean missionary activity is driven partly by the desire to share religious freedom and partly by the hope of a world peace that would lead to reunification with North Korea," Kim said in The Catholic Herald.

The Catholic faith first came to Korea through lay people, not missionaries or bishops, in the late 1700s.

The Korean Church then survived intense religious persecution, with martyrs who have been raised to the altars. Pope John Paul II canonized 103 Korean Martyrs in 1984, while Pope Francis beatified another 124 during his August 2014 visit to the country.

Korean Catholic history includes 35 years of Japanese occupation and the Korean War. According to Kim, this has given the Church awareness about the need to be "a poor Church for the Poor," in the words of Pope Francis.

The Church further played a large role in civil rights and democracy advocacy in the 1980s and 1990s.

There is "a strong social dimension" to its evangelization, Kim said. "Its martyr history has given the Korean Church special identification with the poor and suffering and a willingness for self-sacrifice."

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