August 12th, 2014
05:08 PM ET
Opinion by Candida Moss, special to CNN
(CNN) – When Pope Francis arrives in South Korea on Wednesday for a five-day visit, he’ll get a look at just the kind of church he’s been trying to create worldwide.
The trip, planned to coincide with Asia Youth Day, marks the first time a pope has visited the country since 1989, and is part of a new papal focus on globalization in general and on Asia in particular. (Francis plans to visit Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Japan in January.)
The time has long passed that the Catholic Church is elderly white men and women in European enclaves.
The last papal conclave and the election of the first Latin American Pope raised awareness of the Catholic Church’s growing presence in Africa, but Asian Christianity was hardly mentioned at all.
Even if it is rarely discussed in the media, Korean Catholicism is among the most vibrant in the world.
Here are five reasons South Korea might be the future of Catholic Church.
1. It’s growing.
Catholics make up almost 11% of South Korea’s 50 million population. This may seem like a small percentage, but consider this: In 1960, they only made up 2%.
In contrast to Europe, the majority of South Korean Catholics – as is the broader population of the region – are young.
Vocations to the ministry are also strong. At the end of 2013, South Korea’s 5.4 million Catholics were served by 4,261 priests, with a further 1,489 seminarians in the pipeline, according to church statistics.
In other words, not only is Christianity growing in South Korea, but it’s increasing in popularity among young people. And, in contrast to Europe and the United States, there are enough priests and seminarians to minister to this expanding group.
2. It’s rich.
Catholics in South Korea are increasingly prosperous. In an interview with Catholic News Service, Bishop William McNaughton, who served as the first bishop of Inchon from 1962 until 2002, recalled that when he arrived in the country, most of his congregation was poor. Now, he says, they wealthier than average.
While the economic prospects of Catholics have undoubtedly risen with those of South Korea as a whole, McNaughton attributes the financial success of Catholics there to the excellence of Catholic education.
Whether or not the prosperity of Korean Catholics is because of Catholic education or regional economic growth is less important than the encouraging contrast it forms to the church in other parts of the world.
Church attendance in Europe and the United States has been declining for decades. Meanwhile, in poorer, developing countries, the church has expanded and taken on an increasingly fundamentalist character.
The decline of the Catholic Church in wealthy countries is often linked to the rise of secularism, access to higher education and economic growth. The fear is that as people acquire more education and money, they no longer need God.
This doesn’t seem to be the case in South Korea, where wealth, education and church expansion continue to go together.
3. It competes in a tough environment.
Some commentators have speculated that Christianity in South Korea succeeds because of the spirituality in the region. That’s not exactly true.
In 2005, nearly half the population describe themselves are “irreligious.” The region has a rich religious history, but today South Korea is among the most secular countries in the world.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI identified the “secular state” as one of the chief threats to the Catholic Church in the 21st century, crediting it as one of the causes of declining church attendance in Europe.
That Catholicism continues to flourish in a culture that is broadly speaking nonreligious should encourage church leaders. It proves it can be done.
4. It’s self-supporting.
The history of Christianity on the Korean Peninsula involves not only growth and increased prosperity, but also persecution and martyrdom.
Christianity was legalized in then-unified Korea only in 1886 and for much of that time has been largely self-sufficient. In the wake of World War II, the country was divided in the communist North and the capitalistic South in 1945. The CIA Factbook notes that autonomous religious activities are "now almost nonexistent" in North Korea.
The geographical distance from the Vatican has allowed local bishops to have more autonomy and decentralized the church. As Tom Fox, author of “Pentecost in Asia,” has said, “the starting point of the Asian church has always been the local church.”
This is the model of local governance and evangelization that Pope Francis has tried to encourage and promote in the church in general.
5. It’s committed to social justice.
Korea was largely evangelized by lay activists, not organized missionary campaigns. This history gives the current church in South Korea an independent streak. Masses end with instructions to “evangelize the world” rather than return home, a call that local Catholics take to heart.
This missionary activity is matched by a focus on improving the living conditions their troubled neighbors in North Korea. That charity endears the Catholic Church to both religious and nonreligious South Koreans, who might otherwise be suspicious.
It’s for all these reasons that Francis told Il Messaggero in June that “the church in Asia holds great promise.”
In the Pope’s mind, it seems, the South Korean example may hold the secret to the future of the Catholic Church.
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