Catholicism in North Korea survives in catacombs

by John L. Allen Jr.

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For Western Catholics who sometimes despair of keeping the faith in a secularized world, or passing it on to their children, Fr. Paul Hwang might offer a bit of perspective: Try it in North Korea sometime.

The country’s microscopically small Catholic population – estimated at 3,000 by the government, 800 by the local church – has no resident priest, no access to the sacraments, no possibility of overt catechesis or faith sharing, and can’t even engage in simple gestures such as the Sign of the Cross in public without fear of surveillance.

Hwang, a South Korean, said he is certain there is no Catholic Mass being celebrated anywhere in the North, in a nation of some 23 million people, even underground.

“The South Korean church would know if it were happening,” he said. “It would not be possible because of fear of the security forces.”

Hwang is the National Director of Caritas Corea, a Catholic relief agency based in Seoul, South Korea, and part of Caritas Internationalis, a Vatican-based confederation of 162 Catholic relief, development, and social service organizations worldwide. In the last four years, Hwang has been in and out of North Korea 10 times.

He spoke to NCR in Rome on Thursday on the sidelines of a meeting of the “North Korea Country Group” of Caritas Internationalis.

In the early twentieth century, North Korea was home to a small but flourishing Catholic community, with two territorial dioceses and a territorial abbacy entrusted to the Benedictine Order. During the 1950-53 Korean War, however, the Catholic presence was all but snuffed out – every priest in the country was exiled, imprisoned or executed, and all Catholic institutions were seized by the state.

Benedictine Abbot Primate Fr. Nokter Wolf, for example, told NCR on Oct. 19 that all 18 Benedictines in North Korea at the time of the war perished, either by immediate execution or from eventual death in a labor camp. Their abbey was taken over by the Communists, and is today a Faculty of Agriculture.

The last Bishop of Pyongyang, Francis Hong Yong-ho, is still listed in the Annuario Pontificio, the official Vatican yearbook, as “disappeared” since March 10, 1962. Since that time, the archbishop of Seoul, South Korea, has also been designated the apostolic administrator of Pyongyang.

Today, Hwang described a situation that in some ways seems eerily reminiscent of the catacombs.

The only believers who have even a rudimentary sort of religious formation, he said, are North Korean Catholics who have crossed the Tumen River in the northeast of the country, into a Chinese border zone where family members from the two Koreas often reunite. There, Catholics from the south can pass on some basic religious instruction to family members from the north.

“Some were baptized in this way,” Hwang said.

Afterwards, Hwang said, the northern Catholics go home and practice the faith as best they can in private. They dare not engage in any public conversation about matters of faith or any religious practice, however, for fear of harassment from security forces.

While all religions are kept on a tight leash, restrictions sometimes fall on the Catholic Church in especially harsh fashion.

Monsignor Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Undersecretary for Relations with States, pointed out Oct. 19 that Catholics are the only Christian body in Pyongyang without their own minister appointed by that church’s authorities.

There is only one Catholic church in the capital city, called the “Changchung Church” after the neighborhood in which it’s located, where a Liturgy of the Word is offered on Sunday. However, the church is administered by the “North Korean Catholic Association,” created by the Communist government in June 1988 as a means of control over Catholic life – much like the “Patriotic Association” which regulates Catholic affairs in China.

The North Korean association has occasionally tried to make links with Catholic leaders in South Korea, but these have always been discouraged by the Vatican on the grounds of the northern group's “irregular canonical constitution.”

By way of contrast, Protestant bodies sometimes find it a bit easier to breathe. For example, there’s a Protestant seminary in Pyongyang with 12 North Korean seminarians. In part, Hwang said, this may be because several members of Kim Jong-il’s family, including his mother, have been Protestants, and one relative was actually a Protestant minister. According to some rumors, Hwang said, Kim Jong-il himself was baptized as a Protestant.

Aside from such personal motives, Wolf added a blunt explanation for the more restrictive approach to Catholicism in North Korea: “They fear the power of the Catholic Church,” he said.

Yet side-by-side with this dismal record, there are also small signs of hope, especially in a growing openness to Catholic humanitarian initiatives.

Wolf, for example, recently traveled to Rason, in the northeastern zone of the country, for the dedication of a new 100-bed hospital sponsored by the Benedictines. Though there are no Benedictine monks at the facility, it is overtly labeled an “International Catholic Hospital.”

Wolf said he wore clerical dress when he spoke at the dedication, and found himself before people utterly unfamiliar with the religious tradition he represented.

“I told them, some of you may see the sign on the hospital and wonder what the word ‘Catholic’ means,” he recalled. “I said that we’re a group of people who believe in God, who believe that God loves us and calls us to love others as he has loved us. That’s why we came here.”

With that message, Wolf said, he found the North Korean authorities surprisingly receptive – though it was clear that any religious symbolism that might be interpreted as “proselytism” was unwelcome.

Hwang described a similar experience in launching an ambitious new Caritas initiative in North Korea, which could result in projects such as food productivity improvement, plant seed revolution, water supply and sanitation for children, and specialized hospitals. This activity would be in addition to existing Caritas efforts to address what Hwang described as chronic hunger in much of the country.

On Oct. 11-12, just two days after North Korea’s nuclear test, at a time when most other NGOs or other international delegations heading to North Korea cancelled their plans, Hwang and his Caritas team traveled north for meetings to get the project off the ground, and said they found a warm welcome.

Ironically, Hwang said it’s actually easier for him to travel dressed as a priest in North Korea than in China – where he finds it discreet to use a passport photo without his Roman collar.

Maryknoll Fr. Edward Hammond, an American priest who has lived in South Korea for 46 years, and who has traveled in North Korea 16 times, accompanied Hwang. He told NCR the reason the North Koreans lowered their guard for Caritas is simple.

“This is about humanitarian aid divorced from politics,” Hammond said. “The aim is helping the vulnerable. We want to show the compassion of Christ.”

Yet even Hwang’s experience crossing the demilitarized zone on the morning of Oct. 11 illustrates that while the North Koreans may be keen on compassion, they’re a bit more ambivalent about Christ. As he completed immigration procedures, a copy he was carrying of Deus caritas est, Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, as well as his Korean breviary, were seized.

In the long run, Hwang said, he hopes Catholics may be able to build upon elements in North Korean culture to gradually open a door to the gospel.

“The official philosophy of North Korea is self-reliance,” he said. “The church should use that to lead people who believe in it, at least on the surface, to think about it in a new way. We need to ‘Christianize’ this philosophy, just as the early church did in the Greek world.”

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