Divided South Korean church awaits Pope Francis

Women religious sit Tuesday with families of those who died in the April 16 sinking of a ferry to show support for an independent investigation of the disaster. The families have been protesting in the Seoul, South Korea, plaza where Pope Francis is to beatify 124 martyrs for 30 days. (NCR Photo/Thomas C. Fox)
This article appears in the Francis in Korea feature series. View the full series.

Seoul, South Korea — When Pope Francis arrives here Thursday, he will encounter a vibrant but divided Korean church. It is a church that has grown substantially in numbers in recent decades, but one with significant internal divisions.

"There are actually two churches here," said Columban Fr. Pat Cunningham, "the church of the bishops and the church of the progressive minority."

At the center of this division is how Korean Catholics should engage society and how Catholics should respond to the needs of the poor and the marginalized, especially those displaced by the rapid social and economic change that has occurred here in the past two decades.

Church fractures are not uncommon. However, the division between Korean bishops and Catholic activists has grown as more conservative bishops have been appointed during the past three decades and Catholic activists have become more vocal.

The division between these groups has surfaced in recent months as planning for the papal trip has gone forward.

Pope Francis' five-day itinerary is the product of a committee of Korean bishops who collaborated with government and Vatican officials. From the viewpoint of the Korean bishops, the papal visit is intended to encourage Korean Catholics, linking past, present and future. The two most visible papal events will be the time Francis spends with young people at Asian Youth Day and his beatification of 124 martyrs who died for their faith in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The president of the preparatory committee, the president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea, has said that the papal trip, by focusing on church martyrs, will "lift up to the Gospel values" they died for. "In the life of martyrdom, we can discover true peace and reconciliation," Bishop Peter U-il Kang of Cheju said.

For their parts, Catholic activists, including lay leaders, religious and priests, also cite the Gospels, saying their distinctly radical call for justice and service to the needy are missing in the papal itinerary.

Approximately two dozen NCR interviews with Korean Catholics found widespread disappointment among lay leaders, priests and religious. They say their repeated suggestions to the Korean bishops' planning committee were all rejected.

The activists said they had hoped Francis would have "gone to the margins" of Korean society, where he has called upon Catholics to preach the Gospels by serving the poor. The activists cited Francis' first papal excursion, a visit to Lampedusa, Italy's southernmost island, after seeing newspaper headlines describing the drowning of immigrants at sea. At Lampedusa, Francis urged the world to awaken to the needs of immigrants.

The activists suggested to the planning committee that Francis visit Gangjeong village on the southern coast of Juju Island, where the Korean government is building a naval base to give port to U.S. warships.

They wanted Francis to visit the rural town of Miryang, where elderly Koreans have been doing all they can to stop the construction of high-voltage transmission towers across their land.

In each instance, the Korean bishops dismissed the suggestions of these Catholic activists, the activists said. As the activists see it, Francis' visit to their land is, at best, a missed opportunity and, at worst, a means of affirming an unjust status quo.

At the same time, they have not given up hope entirely. Though the hour is late, they still think Francis could pull off a surprise, saying something that clearly underlines his vision of church, one that is visibly grounded is justice and peace.

"I see no connection between Francis' 'Joy of the Gospel' and the itinerary," said Moses Kwon Oh-kwang, director of Catholic National Federation for Justice. "At no time is Francis going to the margins, where he has told us the Gospel is to be lived."

"Joy of the Gospel" is an apostolic exhortation Pope Francis published in November. It is viewed as a preamble to his pontificate and calls upon Catholics to work for mercy, justice and peace and to re-examine traditions and practices "not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel."

"It's a conventional trip, set up by a few bishops who are really pretty conservative. As it looks now, it reaffirms a church that has grown wealthier and more comfortable with the local power structures" and of the wealthier elements of society, said Dong Hyun Kyung, executive director of the Woori Theology Institute. The Seoul-based institute helps form young Catholic lay leaders and works with Asian church-based nongovernmental organizations on church social action work.

Elizabeth Choi Geum-Ja, who works with the Korean Catholic Women's Community for a New World, said, "The Korean church is very clerical and quite different from the church [Francis] has been advocating for."

She and other Catholics here do not point a finger at the pope when sharply criticizing his itinerary. Rather, they say he is trapped in clerical structures that do not allow him to act freely. They note he has depended upon Korean bishops who, while publicly praising his vision of church, do not privately applaud it.

The Vatican released Francis' itinerary in March. That's when the worst fears of Catholic activists here took hold. Among the first announcements from the Vatican was that Francis would visit the church-run Kkottongnae, or "Flower Village," a welfare institution for disabled, homeless and indigent elderly people. Controversy surrounds the institution for using outmoded treatment programs and because its founder-director, Fr. John Oh Woong-jin, was charged with embezzlement of state funds in 2003. Many Catholics see Francis' visit to the "Flower Village" as a mistake, another way the trip will set back care for the needy.

The Vatican also announced that Francis would celebrate a Mass for Korean peninsular reconciliation inside Myeongdong Cathedral in downtown Seoul, not at a place near the border between South and North Korea, where activists hoped it would be.

Within days of the announcement of the itinerary, a number of lay groups came together and held a press conference taking issue with the proposed itinerary. They released a joint statement, warning the Vatican that Francis' visit should not be "misused" or "distorted" by South Korean President Park Geun-hye to add legitimacy to her government. They claim her December 2012 election was fraudulent, an election that has since been the focus of countless protests, many led by Catholic priests and religious.

By May, Catholic activists had gathered 1,500 names and sent a petition to the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, asking for changes in Francis' trip. They did not receive a response.

While no changes were made to the papal travel plans, a Korean planning committee spokesman in June announced Francis would meet with various Koreans who say they are victims of injustice. The details of these negotiations have not been publicly announced.

The April 16 capsizing of a Japanese-built South Korean ferry, which took the lives of 300, mostly secondary school students, has grown as a public issue here in Korea. The families of ferry victims and many supporters, including Catholic priests and sisters, are demanding the Park government begin an official independent investigation. So far, she has not opened one, adding to outrage and more public demands.

Families of ferry disaster victims have been staging a public protest for 30 days in a Seoul plaza where Pope Francis is to beatify 124 martyrs on Saturday. Each day, several dozen Catholic priests and sisters have been sitting with the families to show public support for their demands for a law to enable an independent investigation and prosecution for those responsible.

Kim Young-oh, the father of one of the victims, told NCR he is begging Francis to put pressure on the Korean government to pass the law and initiate an investigation into the death of his 17-year-old daughter, Kim Yoo Min. He said he believes the pope is a kind and understanding man who will answer his plea. Sitting in the plaza under a tent, Kim has gone 30 days without eating in an effort to force the government into action.

According to a Catholic sister with knowledge of last-minute changes in the papal program, Pope Francis will meet with 10 Koreans who are victims of social injustices. He will have two minutes with each of the 10 to hear their stories on the last day of his visit. The sister said the move is intended to placate critics and said the time the pope will have with these men and women is so short, the gesture is virtually meaningless.

[Thomas C. Fox is NCR publisher. He can be reached at tfox@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NCRTomFox.]

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