With 51,909 members, Andong is the smallest ecclesiastical district in Korea. At the start of the 19th century, the first Christians who settled in the area were refugees from persecution. Bishop emeritus Mgr René Dupont (MEP) arrived in 1969, tasked with developing seven empty parishes with the help of a few priests. As a very rural area, the diocese is particularly affected by the aging of the population.
Seoul (AsiaNews/ÉdA) – On May 26, all Andong parishes celebrated the 50th anniversary of the smallest South Korean diocese. Mgr John Chrisostom Kwon Hyok-ju led the celebrations. Almost all of the diocese’s 91 priests were present.
Activities were held in a large gym rented for the occasion as the faithful were too numerous for the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. The start included the screening of a video that paid tribute to the Bishop Emeritus of Andong, Mgr René Dupont, of the Society for Foreign Missions of Paris (MEP), who came to South Korea in 1969, tasked with developing seven empty parishes (39 at present) with the help of a few priests.
"Andong has changed so much in 50 years," he noted. "Today the diocese has 51,909 members (almost 7 per cent of the population). Everybody knows each other. In fact, Andong is the smallest diocese in Korea, and people are happy to come here. The atmosphere is very friendly."
In the middle of the gym, actors highlighted the main moments of the history of the Christian presence in Andong.
At the start of the 19th century, the first Christians who settled in the area were refugees from persecution. Fearing discovering and death, they lived in communities in remote mountains. Many became martyrs (in 1815, 1827 and especially in 1866).
Only after the signing of the French-Korean treaty, which recognised religious freedom in 1886, could Christians come out of their hiding places in a land of Confucian intellectuals, Buddhist monks and animistic shamans.
The fear of regime change and the memory of the persecution have led them to be discreet. The first waves of evangelisation began after the Second World War and the Korean War, in 1953.
"Catholicism in Korea still has a certain vitality," says Fr Carolo Charles Lee Yeong-gil, a former priest from the Diocese of Andong now engaged in pastoral work in Le Mans, France.
"There are five million Catholics out of 50 million people, and there are around one hundred thousand adult baptisms each year. But right now, things are changing a lot. There are fewer and fewer vocations, especially in the countryside, where aging among Christians is very noticeable. Andong is a very rural diocese and it is particularly affected by this trend.
"Since the founding of the diocese, evangelisation focused primarily on the farming world," Fr Carolo explained. " Catholic farmers in Andong are still very active, but young people go to the city to find work or study."
At the end of the celebrations, those present took part in the solemn thanksgiving Mass officiated by Mgr Kwon. During the homily, Fr Gilles Reithinger, MEP superior general, cited the deep bond between the Society and evangelisation in Korea.
"Two hundred years ago,” he said, “in response to the request of the first Korean Christians, Pope Leo XII entrusted the country to the Foreign Missions of Paris. Pope Gregory XVI appointed Mgr Bruguiere as first apostolic vicar of Korea.
"Among the 103 Korean saints, ten are priests from the MEP: Mgr Imbert and Fathers Maubant and Chastan, Mgr Berneux, Mgr Daveluy and Fathers de Bretennières, Dorie, Beaulieu, Huin and Aumaître.
“Of the 170 priests sent to Korea, many died as martyrs from illness or exhaustion. Twelve were killed during the Korean War. On the whole, the missionaries bore the same cross as Korean Christians.”