Tags: SKorea | Christianity | Francis

Pope Treads Fertile Ground for Faith in First Asian Visit

Pope Treads Fertile Ground for Faith in First Asian Visit
(Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images)

Wednesday, 13 August 2014 10:49 PM

A night-time landing at Seoul’s Gimpo Airport offers a cityscape heartening to any Christian proselytizer, with neon red crosses sprinkled across the capital marking the presence of churches.

The scene in a Buddhist-majority nation that once tortured thousands of Christians to death helps explain why Pope Francis chose South Korea for the first papal visit to Asia in 15 years that started today. The country, along with neighbor China, is spurring Asia’s rise as one of the world’s fastest-growing Christian populations, helping counter the faith’s slowing growth in Europe and the U.S.

“The Holy Father’s trip to Asia reflects his awareness of something that’s not on the radar for many Westerners: Christianity, both Roman Catholicism and various forms of Protestantism, is booming in Asia,” Father John Wauck, professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, said by e-mail. “It is, you could say, a growth industry there.”

Francis:Pope’s Hidden Life Revealed.

For Francis, dubbed “The People’s Pope” by Time Magazine for his preaching of humility and defense of the poor, South Korea offers particularly fertile ground. Unlike in many other countries in Asia and Latin America, Catholicism is holding its own against the spread of evangelical churches, which have seen their reputation in the country tainted by everything from cases of financial misdeeds to links to the Sewol ferry tragedy.

After the Sewol sinking on April 16 that killed more than 300 people, mostly high school students, authorities said the ferry company was run by Yoo Byung Eun, the leader of a Christian group called Guwon, or redemption.

Police twice raided the group’s 230,000-square-meter compound south of Seoul seeking to arrest Yoo, who taught followers that they needed to dedicate their wealth to him to achieve salvation. Yoo used Guwon to control a network of about 70 companies, South Korea’s financial authorities said. His badly decomposed body was discovered on July 22, with forensic analysts unable to determine the cause of his death.

“Yoo amassed his wealth by convincing his followers that the end of the world is near and that redemption is possible only if they accept God through his teachings and dedicate their wealth to the sect,” said Rev. Chung Dong Sup, a former member of the Guwon sect who now heads a family counseling institute.

“He succeeded in convincing his followers that his business empire is a work of God and that they should dedicate all they can to it because working for those business ventures is as good as serving God,” he said.

The Sewol tragedy will be on the pope’s agenda as he plans to meet with families of the victims during his trip.

“Catholicism is especially luring young Koreans, attracted by priests being more vocal on social issues and far less authoritarian in their attitudes,” Tark Ji-il, a theology professor at the Busan Presbyterian University, said by phone. “The pope’s visit could also be a crisis for Protestant churches, whose public images have deteriorated over the past decade.”

The number of South Korean Catholics rose 42 percent to 5.1 million in 2005 from a decade earlier, while that of Protestants dipped 2 percent to 8.6 million in the same period, according to a 2005 government census, the latest with religious figures. Buddhism held the biggest portion with 10.7 million followers, or 23 percent of the country’s 47-million population at the time.

Pope Francis missed the Gimpo night scape scene when he arrived this morning at a military base outside of Seoul, where he was greeted by President Park Geun Hye. During the five-day visit the pope will attend World Youth Day in the city of Daejeon and to carry out the Aug. 16 beatification ceremony for 124 Korean martyrs. He will also meet refugees from North Korea and make a call for reconciliation between the two Koreas.

Francis is the first pope to visit South Korea since John Paul II a quarter of a century ago and he shares some of the same popular appeal as the “rock star” pope, whose visit fueled a surge in the faith among Koreans.

Francis:Pope’s Hidden Life Revealed.

Banners welcoming Pope Francis dot the streets of Seoul while t-shirts, statuettes and other memorabilia are on sale at stores across the city. Tedora, an Italian jewelry brand, is selling special edition pope charm jewelry enhanced by the “the holiness of the Vatican,” according to its Facebook page.

“The numbers that turn out will be off the charts,” Rev. Monsignor Robert J. Wister, professor of church history at Seton Hall University’s Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology, said in an e-mail. “A growing community has a lot of vibrancy and life. He will get an extraordinary reception. It will easily be similar to Pope John Paul II.”

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The scene in a Buddhist-majority nation that once tortured thousands of Christians to death helps explain why Pope Francis chose South Korea for the first papal visit to Asia in 15 years that started on Aug. 14.
SKorea, Christianity, Francis
Wednesday, 13 August 2014 10:49 PM
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