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Francis and South Korea

via the Catholic World Report

by John Paul Shimek


john shimekIt’s official. The volo papale, or papal airplane, will take off from Rome’s Fiumicino Airport in mid-August. This time it will be headed for the heart of Asia. Pope Francis will visit Daejeon, South Korea from August 14 to 18. Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican Press Office, made the announcement in a statement issued March 10. The official comunicato reads:Welcoming the invitation from the President of the Republic and the Korean bishops, His Holiness Francis will make an Apostolic Trip to the Republic of Korea from 14 to 18 August 2014, on the occasion of the Sixth Asian Youth Day, to be held in the diocese of Daejeon.

The trip will mark the first papal visit to the Korean peninsula in more than two decades. Pope John Paul II visited there on two separate occasions: in the spring of 1984 and again in the autumn of 1989. For his part, Pope Benedict XVI did not elect to visit South Korea during almost a decade as pope.

Both of Pope John Paul II’s visits attracted record numbers of pilgrims. Traveling to Seoul in 1989 for the International Eucharistic Congress, he led one of the largest outdoor gatherings on the Asian continent: some one million Catholics attended the congress’ closing liturgical celebration on October 8, 1989. However, that record was broken in 1995 when he visited Manila, Philippines on the occasion of the Tenth International World Youth Day. More than five million individuals attended that event—the largest outdoor gathering in human history.

A vibrant Church

Like Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis could attract record-setting numbers of pilgrims. After all, the Catholic Church is alive and well in South Korea. In fact, over the last decade, Catholicism has witnessed an incredible growth spurt there. Church enrollment has swelled some 70 percent. Now, more than five million South Koreans—about 11 percent of the population—are members of the Roman Catholic Church. That number continues to increase.

Official logo of Pope Francis' trip to South Korea
The official logo for Pope Francis’ August trip to South Korea (CNS photo/Archdiocese of Seoul)

The situation in South Korea stands in stark contrast to the state of affairs in other parts of the world. In Europe, for example, church attendance and birth rates have taken a nosedive while atheist secularism has swept the continent. Whereas scholars describe Europe as a “post-Christian” culture caught in the throes of a demographic winter, other regions seem to be in the middle of a golden age of evangelization. Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and co-director of Baylor’s Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion, told the Italian newspaper Avvenire in 2009 that Europe is coming to the “end of a kind of great monopoly” on Christianity, since “Christianity is notably rooted today in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, especially among the poor.”

Of course, time will tell whether Pope Francis’ visit will make a contribution to the continued success of the Church in Asia. But the announcement of his intention to visit that part of the world sends some significant signals about the possible future course of his pontificate. To round out the point, his proposed pilgrimage might indicate an important shift in papal geopolitical priorities.

A look to “the ends of the Earth”

Both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI mostly restricted their early papal pilgrimages to traditional Catholic strongholds, including visits to Mexico, Ireland, Germany, Poland, and Spain. Pope Francis is doing something different. Aside from some visits around Rome and the Italian peninsula, Pope Francis hasn’t made any European trips at all; his international travel at this point has consisted of last summer’s trip to Rio de Janeiro and his trip last month to the Holy Land. His first trip inside of Europe, but outside of Italy, will take him to the southeastern border of the continent; in September, he will visit Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s homeland of Albania.

The point is not that Francis is the first pope to reach out to the extremities of the planet. Rather, he is the first pope to reach out so quickly.

Without doubt, St. John Paul II’s pontificate packed a global punch. He circled the earth, putting more than enough miles on the popemobile to make four trips around the globe or to travel half the distance to the moon. His image was broadcast or reprinted more times than that of the Mona Lisa. And, although he was the first non-Italian pope in more than five centuries, he spoke his native Polish just as well as the Spanish that connected him with more than 500 million people living in Latin America.

Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate was not very different. Between 2006 and 2009, he kept pace with his predecessor, making almost the equivalent number of foreign trips as John Paul II did at the same age. In fact, Pope Benedict XVI averaged some three trips abroad per year during that chapter of his pontificate.

However, it took time for both John Paul II and Benedict XVI to establish a global papal profile. When John Paul was elected pope in the autumn of 1978, papal globe-trotting was all but non-existent; Pope Paul VI’s visit to the United Nations in New York in 1965 had been unprecedented. Indeed, during the first chapter of his pontificate, John Paul II focused his attention on the situation in Europe, specifically the problem of communism in Eastern and Central Europe. Two decades later, Pope Benedict XVI focused on Europe and the problem of Western secularization. While he did visit other parts of the world, including Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, Benedict understood the central mission of his pontificate to be the restoration of Christian faith in the heart of old Europe.

For his part, Francis is blazing a new path. Even during these earliest stages of the “Francis Revolution,” the pope from “the ends of the Earth” is traveling to Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia before his pontificate even hits the two-year mark.


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