Pope Francis in South Korea: Three Things to Know

Hours ago, Pope Francis began his first Apostolic visit to Asia. After an overnight flight from Rome, which took the Roman Pontiff through Chinese airspace—a first in the chronicles of the acts of the popes—the man from the “ends of the earth” landed at Seoul’s Incheon Airport and met and addressed (in English) South Korean President Park Guen-Hye and other dignitaries, including the President of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, and the Primate of South Korea and Apostolic Administrator of Pyongyang, Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung.

No doubt the papal pilgrimage is of great and especial interest to Asian Christians and Catholics. The Pope is in South Korea for the celebration of their Sixth Asian Youth Day, after all. But, the visit should interest Western Christians just as much. For, we know in faith that we’re all part of the same communio (or, koinonia) of believers, as the official anthem of the papal visit explains. As we look on at the visit from a distance, here are three things we should know about its significance for the global Church and our experience of it.

1)    As Americans, whenever we think about ‘Korea,’ we tend to think about North Korea and the dictatorial regime of Kim Joong-un. Since the Korean War, we have become accustomed to negative images about the peninsula. But, South Korea presents a different reality. Its capital, Seoul, is a booming and technologically advanced metropolis that brings together East and West. But, unlike North Korea, South Korea is open and welcoming to a strong Christian presence there. We might even think of it as a Christian country—at least in a certain sense.

In the Sixth Republic of (South) Korea there have been six presidents. Four of them have been Christian (Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun, and Lee Myung-bak). Just one has been Buddhist (Roh Tae-woo). Current President Park Guen-Hye does not identify a specific religious affiliation, however; but, she does espouse certain conservative political principles.


More to the point, 11 percent of the general population of South Korea identifies as Catholic while another 18.3 percent registers as Protestant. That means 29.3 percent of South Koreans are Christian. By comparison, 22.8 percent are Buddhist. Moreover, the number of South Korean Christians is not a stagnant one, as it can be in places like North America and Europe, but it is a growing and expanding one. In fact, South Korea saw more baptisms than Europe in the course of the last twelve months. When one considers that the South Korean peninsula occupies a stretch of land more or less equivalent to Indiana, that point of comparison becomes a significant one, if not an altogether surprising one. To be certain, influx into the Christian fold is an on-going phenomenon there.

Plus, South Korean Catholicism is home-grown, organic, and localized. As the Catholic News Agency (CNA) reports, “Unlike China or Japan, Catholicism in Korea was not introduced by a colonial or foreign power. Korean scholars learned at the beginning of the seventeenth century about the teachings of the Gospel, which were spreading in China, and undertook travels to the Jesuit missionaries there in order to study it.” In other words, the desire for the proclamation of the Christian Gospel and the establishment of a Christian Church in Korea was not something that came from outside, but welled up from the depths of the people of the peninsula themselves. CNA notes that “They returned to their country to promote the faith, and it spread so quickly that only a few decades later, when a Chinese priest managed to enter the country, he found a well-established, though ostracized, group of Catholics numbering in the thousands.”

2)     Given this historical background and the current emergent state of Christian faith there, it is no surprise that Pope Francis should wish to honor the peninsula with a papal visit. That visit constitutes one more chapter in an on-going narrative of papal outreach to the extremities of the planet. To date, Pope Francis’ trips have taken him outside of Europe to Catholic outposts in Latin America, northern Africa and the Middle East, and Asia. At this juncture, there are widespread expectations of forthcoming visits to Western (North American and European) capital cities, but no confirmed trips. Unlike his two predecessors, who first visited Western and northern hemisphere locations after their papal elections, Pope Francis’ focus is first and foremost on the extremities of the planet. (See my article here for a more detailed discussion of what is distinctive about Pope Francis’ interest in the far reaches of the world and the reasons that interest is significant for the future of the Church.)

While that interest reveals a lot about the future direction of the universal Church and the pastoral program of this present pontificate, it also tells us something about the spiritual instincts of the Pope himself.

On the one hand, Pope Francis’ interest in the global south reflects the fact that he is the first non-European pope in over a millennium and the first Latin American pope ever. On the night of his election, he declared himself—from the central loggia of St. Peter’s basilica—a bishop chosen from the “ends of the earth.” As an individual coming from that unique geographical context, he brings to his papal office a new set of concerns and focuses. Just like St. Pope John Paul II brought with him an interest in Poland and the Cold War and Pope (now Emeritus) Benedict XVI brought with him a desire to re-Christianize the Western Europe from which he hailed, Pope Francis is highlighting his own unique regions of the world. Indeed, he is helping us to be mindful of the importance of the southern hemisphere and the global south for the Christian Church.

At the same time, the Pope’s interest in these parts of the world springs from the fact that he is a Jesuit. His focus on Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia evidences his Jesuitical instincts to evangelize and to preach the Gospel unto the ends of the earth. As a matter of fact, this week’s trip to Seoul and other parts of South Korea fulfills a long-standing desire of the Argentine Jesuit to visit Asia. Catholic News Agency reports that “As a young man and a Jesuit still in formation, Jorge Bergoglio longed to become a missionary in the Far East, like St. Francis Xavier and so many of his confreres in the Society of Jesus.”

If we were to translate Pope Francis’ pastoral plan into theological language, we might suggest that he is helping the Church to move from (but, not depart from) a Europeanized communio ecclesiology to a uniquely global southern camino missiology. In other words, he is helping us—as a Church—to move from being concerned about ecclesial self-preservation to becoming energetic about the work of spreading the Evangelii Gaudium—the joy of the Gospel.

The papal presupposition seems to be that re-focusing on the work of evangelization and the efforts of missionary discipleship re-orients the Church away from in-fighting and toward fruitfulness. In his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis spelled this out, noting that “An evangelizing community is … supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be. An evangelizing community is always concerned with fruit, because the Lord wants her to be fruitful. It cares for the grain and does not grow impatient at the weeds” (EG, n. 24).

3)    This shift in papal geopolitical priorities reflects recent world developments, too. Within the last decade, it has become commonplace to observe the fact that Old Europe, as well as Old America, for that matter, were once—but are no longer—the strongholds and anchors of global Catholicism. Once, European and North American capitals like Rome, Paris, and New York sent missionaries to the far reaches of the globe. Now, the far reaches of the globe are sending missionaries to us. We—Europeans and North Americans—have become post-Christian while Latin Americans, Africans, and Asians have been experiencing a golden age of Christian birth and emergence. Philip Jenkins has done rather ground-breaking academic research in this vein of thought.

All of that is a narrative familiar to those who have been keeping up with the shifting sociological trends and statistics. But, what might not be so familiar to them is that those changing winds are beginning to be felt at the Church’s center in Rome.

At the universal Church’s administrative hub, Pope Francis has been executing managerial decisions that manifest his sustained focus on the planet’s extremities. Following his election, he assembled a blue-ribbon Council of Cardinal Advisers, which brings together high-ranking pastors from the global north and south. From the global south, Pope Francis chose Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz Ossa of Santiago de Chile, Chile; Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay, India; Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya of Kinshasa, Congo; and Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Additionally, Pope Francis raised 19 bishops and archbishops to the College of Cardinals last February, his first consistory, selecting nine of those candidates from the developing world. In various ways, Pope Francis has been looking to involve representatives of the global south at increasingly higher levels of ecclesial administration.

So, while Pope Francis’ first Apostolic visit to Asia means a lot to those he is visiting, it also signals a new direction and manifests a new order for the larger global Church. The Pope’s trip sets off a new chapter for the universal Church. (In fact, Pope Francis will be heading back to Asia—Sri Lanka and the Philippines—in the near future.) And, that chapter could turn out to tell a narrative about the opening of the Latin or Roman Church to the Orient and the global south.

Editor’s note: In the photo above, Pope Francis walks with South Korean President Park Geun-hye after landing Thursday in Seoul. (Photo credit: CNS/Paul Haring)

John Paul Shimek


John Paul Shimek is a Roman Catholic theologian and a specialist on Vatican affairs. Prof. Shimek earned his graduate degrees in theology and philosophy from Catholic University of America, and maintains a website and blog entitled John Paul Shimek – The Pilgrim Journalist.

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