The Churches of the global South have begun to feature pretty well on the agenda of Pope Francis’ early travels. His first trip was to attend the World Youth Day activities in Brazil. Then came his historic pilgrimage to the Holy Land in May. Come August, the pope will travel to South Korea. He is due to attend the Asian Youth Day there and the beatification of 124 Korean Martyrs.
Outreach to North Korea?
Brazil offered Pope Francis a brief encounter with groups of youth worldwide: the future Church. In South Korea he will meet with the future Church of Asia. His visit venue is 200 kilometres away from the venue of the recent ferry disaster. But, the tragic tales of the ferry martyrs will be even more palpable than distant memories about the beati Martyrs. Yet, more eloquent than the silence of all these dead is the muffled cry of living martyrs. The first Asian visit can offer Pope Francis an opportunity for pastoral outreach to the entire Korean Nation, which was divided six decades ago by outside intervention. Just as Pope Paul VI spoke to the Chinese Nation from Hong Kong in 1970, no doubt, Pope Francis could reach out to all Koreans of North and South with a reconciliatory message. Exposure to the last vestiges of political ideology that still linger in Asia may also help alert him to newer threats of neo-racism sprouting in the region.
The laity-founded Korean Church has been unique in many ways. Like most early Asians, Koreans revered the written word. Some Korean scholars visiting China about 300 years ago, brought home Scripture texts including those of Jesuit missioner Matteo Ricci. Laypeople’s study of these texts led to further visits to China where they sought Baptism in 1784. Scripture-based faith sharing sustained the priestless lay Church. And when missioners first arrived nearly 50 years later, they were surprised to find a faith community of 4,000 Catholics.
Integrated faith and witness
Lay spirituality has been the backbone of the Korean Church. During the last century, the virility of Korean laity’s faith became evident in the founding of lay groups such as the Korean Catholic Farmers’ Movement and the Woori Theology Institute. Woori’s young lay theologians have engaged in theological research and sociological surveys related to the everyday life of the local Church. Their research projects have helped improve the effectiveness of pastoral programs. As need arose, these lay movements worked alongside the Korean Priests’ Association for Justice. The Jesuari prayer movement met another aspect of people’s spiritual needs.
Such faith witness was encouraged by the late Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, whom Koreans often described as “the Nation’s conscience.” The first Korean to receive the red hat, he prided that his Myeongdong Cathedral had become the rallying point of striking workers of various faiths. The Korean Church integrated people’s faith witness with solidarity in people’s struggle for human rights in a fast industrialised society.
In many countries, canonisation is considered a privilege of clergy and Religious. But the vast number of Korean saints are laypeople. In 1984, Saint John Paul II canonised 103 Korean Martyrs. And on the upcoming visit, Pope Francis will participate in the beatification of another 124 Martyrs. They all personify the faith journey of mostly laity among some 8,000 Catholics persecuted for their faith through 18th-19th centuries. More importantly, although the country is divided as North and South Korea, the Church is not. And so the martyrs include Northerners as well as Southerners.
While celebrating the faith integrity of such witnesses who died for the faith, the Church needs more the integrity of those who live it out in service. The late president Kim Dae-jung’s long political struggle as well as the earlier faith witness of poet Kim Chi-ha are just two examples of such Eucharistic service as bread broken to feed people’s contextual hunger for justice, peace.
Jesus’ multiplication of loaves “shows the future Heaven,” said Kim Chi-ha in the “Declaration of Conscience” he wrote in prison in his early years. This reality is further depicted in his poem:
“Food is heaven As you can’t go to heaven by yourself Food has to be shared Food is heaven As you see the stars in heaven together Food is to be shared with everybody When the food goes into a mouth Heaven is worshipped in the mind Food is heaven Ah, ah, food is to be shared by everybody.”
Kim’s earlier poetry was similar to that of Latin American Ernesto Cardinale, which cannot be unfamiliar to Pope Francis. More than any recent pope, he is equipped with the grace to grasp the native wavelength of people’s yearnings that are variedly tagged in Asia as Korea’s Minjung theology, Japan’s Burakumin theology or India’s Dalit theology, all of which reflect the Gospel’s call for sharing and justice. Will he listen to these Southern voices of the Spirit, which some Church leaders have heard but not heeded? END