(AsiaNews) - This year marks the 50th
anniversary of the establishment of full diplomatic relations between South
Korea and the Holy See. For the occasion, today 19 December, the Secretary of
State Mgr Pietro Parolin celebrated a Mass at the chapel of the Pontifical Korean
College in Rome, in the presence of worshippers, ambassadors and chargés d'affaires.
AsiaNews asked the Hon Thomas Han
Hong-soon to assess these 50 years. The Hon Han was the ambassador of the
Republic of Korea to the Holy See from 2010 until 2013. A few weeks ago, he was
replaced by Mr Francis Kim Kyung-Surk.
his remarks, the Hon Han emphasises the important contribution the Catholic
Church and the Vatican have made and continue to make to the Korean nation in area
of modernisation, human dignity, development and charity. A survey by a
Buddhist institute shows that the Catholic Church is first and most important
institution in Korea. According to some projections, more than half of all Koreans
will belong to the Catholic Church by 2050. For now, evangelisation and a
possible visit by Pope Francis, who is already well-known and appreciated in
the country, will be crucial. Korea's model of relations with the Holy See
could give some ideas for diplomatic relations with China.
the Vatican and Seoul have been strong for a long time, even from before the 50
years we are now celebrating. In fact, Korea and the universal Church had
relations even before the establishment of diplomatic relations between the
Holy See and the Republic of Korea.
It is important
to stress how much the Catholic Church has contributed to Korea's human and
social development, starting in the early days of the Catholic Church in Korea,
even under persecution. Afterward, with the presence of the missionaries, Christians
contributed to the country's modernisation and planted the seeds of human
An example of
this is the experience of equality between human beings and the dissemination
of a culture of love. In the early Korean Christian communities, masters sat
next to slaves, in a sign of brotherhood. This was something unimaginable
The Church has
always had at heart the common good of the nation. After Vatican II, its
contribution to development - with a momentum towards democracy and justice -
was even greater.
From a political
point of view, it should be noted that even under Japanese colonial rule (1905-1945),
the Holy See never ceased to recognise Koreans as a people and as a nation.
At the end of
the Second World War, even before Korea was recognised by the international
community as a sovereign nation (1948), the Holy See sent an Apostolic Delegate
in 1947. Thus, the Holy See was the first country to recognise modern Korea,
even before the UN.
Delegate to Korea Patrick Byrne (1888-1950), a Maryknoll missionary, never left
the country, not even after the Communist aggression from the North. For this
reason, he was arrested and died of starvation and cold in the so-called
"death marches" inflicted by the Pyongyang regime. We consider him a
martyr. The Holy See tried to share this difficult time with the Korean people.
Fifty years of
diplomatic relations have boosted even more the Church's contribution to the
Korean people and are another reason to give thanks for this tie. The Church
has contributed in every way to the dignity of the people, collectively and individually,
in terms of human rights, justice, and above all charity. Even with regards to
North Korea, the Church continues to push for reconciliation.
Trying to unify
the two Koreas without true reconciliation is meaningless. I am very excited to
think back over all these years, looking closely at the special contribution the
Holy See and the Church made to the country.
have noted this. In a recent survey by a Buddhist organisation, the Catholic
religion comes first as the most valued and important religion in Korea. Why is
this? Because of the commitment and unity the Catholic Church shows and experiences
with the Holy See. The Korean Church exists in actual and affective communion
with the Holy Father.
This has also
led to a staggering growth in the number of faithful. In 1960 the Catholic
Church had 500,000 members. Today we are 5.5 million, or 11 per cent of the
population. And the more we go up the social ladder - intellectuals, cultural
sector, business - the higher the percentage.
Korea is perhaps
the only country in the world where the Catholic Church has grown hand in hand
with economic development. The increase in economic prosperity and materialism
has often been associated with a decline in faith, but Korea dispels this link since
the Christian faith has expanded along with economic growth.
The poll I
mentioned -by a Buddhist research institute - indicates that over the next 30
years more than half of the Korean population will be Catholic, approximately
25 million or 56 per cent of the total by 2044.
In fact, the
Catholic Church has doubled its membership every ten years. In 1985 there were
1.86 million Catholics; they were 2.95 million in 1999 and 5.24 million in 2005.
At this pace, we can realistically expect the Catholic Church to be largest
group in the country.
All this comes
from what the Catholic Church is offering the country: unity, above all unity
with the pope. In the 1980s we had the privilege of receiving Pope John Paul II
twice (in 1984 and 1989). The coming of the Polish pope was a great gift for
evangelisation, for the pope is always the most effective missionary and has
always been very well received by the Korean population.
Francis has had real impact on Koreans. After seeing him express his joy, sense
of charity, and love for the sick, many Koreans are taking an interest in the
Catholic faith in order to be baptised. For this reason, a visit by Pope
Francis to Korea, next year perhaps, would be important. The purpose is evangelisation
is that of pushing further the culture of love, a love that comes from the
The growth of
the Catholic Church in Korea means that I cannot separate my identity as a
Korean from that of a Catholic. The humanisation of Korea flows from evangelisation.
This is always the greatest gift that the Church can offer to a country. Therefore,
Korea will always be grateful to the Holy See and the Catholic Church.
teachings of the Holy Father - catechesis, social doctrine, etc. - must be
implemented through the local Church and people in Korea, and the Holy See is
grateful to the Korean people for this. Sometimes, the Church's contribution has
led to tensions over issues like justice, democracy, ecology . . . . But this
does not mean that it has not been appreciated.
For me, the time
I spent as an ambassador was a time of abundant grace. In my work I have tried
to boost relations between Korea and the Vatican on behalf of the common good.
An ambassador is
usually seen as someone sent abroad to lie for his country. I have never had to
do that because there is no diplomatic competition or conflicting interests with
the Holy See. The Holy See and my country share the same interest in promoting and
working for the common good.
the Holy See do not have to lie; they can be safely honest. When I was unexpectedly
appointed ambassador, I felt like the ass in the Last Supper (cf. Matthew, 21:2), which the apostles took
on the Lord's order because "The master has need of"
him. As "ass" I tried to do my best. At the end of my mandate, I ideally want
to say that as Saint Paul said, "I have competed well; I have finished the
race; I have kept the faith."
Now I can go home,
return to Korea as an ambassador, but as a Catholic, I remain tied to the
Vatican (as a member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity). As for the
future, I place myself in God's hands; he has always looked after me, in all my
plans and beyond.
Such a strong
link between a country in the Far East and the Holy See might also show neighbouring
countries how to manage such relationships. China comes to mind for example.
But it all depends on the attitudes Chinese leaders have towards the Holy See,
how they see the role of the Catholic Church in China and the world.
Today, the Holy
See has diplomatic relations with 180 countries and its role in support of the
common good is seen by everyone as highly positive. The absence of diplomatic
relations with the Holy See deprives China of a very important contribution in
the globalised world.
* Thomas Han was
born on 17 August 1943. Married with three children, he is a graduate in economics
from Seoul National University (1965), in social sciences (economics) from the
Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome (1971), and has an honorary doctorate in
Law from the Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan. He was a lecturer in economics
at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS) in Seoul (1972-2008), and a member
of the Catholic Lay Apostolate Council of Korea (1984-2010). In addition to
various national and international posts, he was also a member of the
International College of Auditors of the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of
the Holy See (2008-2010) as well as Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the
Holy See (2010-2013).