06/30/2014, 00.00
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Card. Yeom: The Pope for peace in Korea and mission in Asia

by Bernardo Cervellera
In an interview with AsiaNews, the archbishop of Seoul says that Francis is travelling to the peninsula “to encourage our church to be at the forefront of mission. This is a great responsibility given the many challenges facing our society". A separate chapter for reconciliation with the North, "We would hope for a great gesture of peace, even if it may be somewhat difficult. I would hope that the Pope will bless Kim Jong-un and the President Park, wishing them both a future of peace” .

Seoul (AsiaNews) - The "greatest" miracle that Pope Francis' upcoming visit to Korea could produce would be a return to dialogue between the North and South of the peninsula, through an unexpected gesture of reconciliation, even if difficult to imagine. Nonetheless, the "real" miracle" is that the Pope's visit to Korea is "placing us at the forefront of mission" in Asia. These are the words of Card. Andrew Yeom Soo-jung, Archbishop of Seoul, just over a month ahead of Pope Francis' arrival on Korean soil. According to the cardinal, on this "Asian" mission, the pontiff will especially focus on the laity, who have been crucial in the since the beginning of the Korean Church. Moreover, among the 124 martyrs who Francis will beatify there is only one priest.

Asia for the third millennium

First, there is the importance the Pope places on this first trip to Asia: "We have always hoped that the pope would come to Korea. Now, that he is, we welcome him as a great gift and a miracle. In a year and a half Francis has made few international trips and one to the Middle East: his decision to come to Korea, the first fully Asian country, so to speak, has really impressed us. I truly believe that God is working to show us a path and His will. The Pope is coming first and foremost to meet the young people of Asia for the Asian youth day. He is coming to encourage us to be at the forefront of mission".

As a Church, he adds, "we must become responsible for all of Asia.  John Paul II said that the third millennium is the time to focus on the evangelization of Asia. Asia encompasses two-thirds of the world population and is becoming an important continent for the global economy and politics. Unfortunately, even though Jesus was born in Asia, the percentage of believers in this continent does not exceed 1-2%".

It must be said that even in Korea - as in Asia - "There are many difficulties: low birth rates, populations at risk, the growing number of elderly. There are families that are falling apart, rising divorce rates, the arrival of immigrants, integration difficulties - especially in multicultural families. There is also the problem of money becoming more important than God, and the resulting problem of a more materialistic society that is less passionate about life.  This is precisely where the witness of the laity is essential.

This is also why the Pope's visit places great concerns and responsibilities on our shoulders".

The lay martyrs

The cardinal explains that the best source for inspiration in this mission is the witness of the Korean Churches' many lay martyrs, including those who Francis will beatify.  "In 1984, 200 years after the founding of the Korean Church, John Paul II canonized the first group of 103 martyrs. Among them there were only 11 priests. Everyone else was a lay person, who came from all walks of life. This year, of the 124 martyrs to be beatifies, only one is a priest. All of the others are workers, butchers, shopkeepers, housewives, servants. This shows that the Korean Church is a creative church where every believer is responsible for witness and proclamation".

Card. Yeom lists the characteristics of the Korean Church, founded by a group of lay people who, eager to modernize and serve their country, began to study more, importing books from Beijing on Western science and Christianity. By themselves, these lay people studied and spread the Catholic faith, although for many years they never had a priest: the first Mass was celebrated in Korea in 1795, but there were already 4 thousand faithful. "All of them - notes Card. Yeom - were educated in Confucianism (authority, hierarchy, roles, different value for each person), in Christianity they sought the truth, the truth about man, about God, about the world". But the government of the time, seeing a stark conflict between Confucianism and Christianity, unleashed a wave of brutal persecution. "Augustine, one of the future blessed, before he was killed, wrote a letter to the king, in which he stated that the government was persecuting the Catholic religion only because it was a foreign religion. But he says: 'It is not a problem if God is announced and comes from one country or another'.  In the letter he claims to have the same values ​​of Confucianism: love for the family and parents, for his country, for the king".

However, it must be said that in the Joseon period (the Confucian dynasty that ruled Korea from 1392 to 1910) society was strictly segregated: men and women; men among themselves (the rich and the poor, the authorities and the people, different social classes ...). "Catholics - said the prelate - emphasized the equal dignity of all people and therefore appeared as if they wanted to break down this structure. In fact, the sacrifice of the martyrs laid the foundation for a society centered on man and on the dignity of the person".

The reconciliation of the Korean Peninsula

Card. Yeom reveals that the Korean people are also looking to the Pope in the great desire for peace that permeates the entire peninsula, given the continuing tensions with the North. "In the Holy Land - he says - the Pope invited the presidents of Israel and Palestine 'to his home' in the Vatican to pray together. Perhaps Pope Francis might make a gesture of peace or detente for the two Koreas. In the past, we had hoped that the Pope's visit could lead to reconciliation between North and South. But currently neither side shows any willingness to enter into dialogue and this is one of the most frustrating things for us".

The war between the North and the South, he continues, "was unleashed immediately after the liberation from Japanese occupation. It led to the division of the Korean peninsula and an increase in acts of violence from both sides. Whoever wanted the division is also responsible for the growth of animosity between the two parties. The Pope is a person who wants peace and does not want North Korea to be lost, who wants North and South Korea to live together in harmony and share fraternal love. I would hope that the Pope will bless Kim Jong-un and President Park, wishing them both a future of peace".

Meanwhile, the Korean Church has for decades been at the front lines of peace efforts with North: "After 50 years we have formed a committee for reconciliation that seeks to draw closer to North Korea with prayer and humanitarian aid. I hope that the Pope may invite the two leaders for a common gesture of prayer or a meeting. But it would be a true miracle. In the cathedral each week on Tuesday we celebrate a Mass for reconciliation. Koreans in the north and south share the same language and culture. Even if we have lived under different ideologies, we should overcome our divisions and be reconciled with each other".

The Archbishop of Seoul recalls that after the division, priests, bishops and nuns of the North were massacred or expelled and that currently there is not even one priest in the North. "I am also the apostolic administrator of Pyongyang - he says with sadness - but so far I have not had the chance to visit that city, where there are about 3 thousand Catholics. I've only had the chance to visit Kaesong, an economic zone in the North, where some entrepreneurs in the South have opened several industries and where about 50 thousand North Koreans work".


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“L’Asia: ecco il nostro comune compito per il terzo millennio!” - Giovanni Paolo II, da “Alzatevi, andiamo”