Pope Francis’ Korea visit not without controversies
Paul Hwang | Jun. 5, 2014
As Pope Francis’ mid-August visit to Korea draws closer, local Catholics are
upbeat and busy in preparation. Christians and non-Christians alike here are
showing interest as anticipation rises for the arrival of perhaps the most
charismatic religious figure on the world scene.
The Korean bishops, meanwhile, are focused on the trip, with special attention
being paid to the initial stimulus for the invitation, Asian Youth Day in Daejeon,
Korea, which falls in the middle of the Aug. 14-18 papal journey.
Although there has yet to be any official announcement with regard to Francis’
schedule, privately, plans are developing, and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of
Korea has officially acknowledged Francis will celebrate Mass in the Seoul
cathedral and will preside at the beatification ceremony for 124 sainthood
candidates, most of whom were martyred in 18th century.
Unlike his visit to Brazil, where Francis joined World Youth Day activities in July
2013, this papal visit has begun to spark controversy here, revealing long-festering
church-state divisions and even some feuds among Korean Catholics themselves.
Representatives from various Catholic-related nongovernmental organizations held
a press conference in March warning that Francis’ visit should not be “misused” or
“distorted” by Korean President Park Geun-hye. They fear Geun-hye could use
Francis’ visit to justify or cover up what they claim was a rigged 2012 presidential
election: The groups say she used government organizations, including the
National Intelligence Service and government prosecutors, to win the election.
Park was a four-term member of the Korean National Assembly when she ran for
president. (Her father was Park Chung-hee, Korean president from 1963 to 1979.)
Since the election, local Catholics, traditionally active in Korean politics, have been
protesting the election process.
Catholics make up more than 10 percent of the 50 million Korean population.
Following the election, more than 11,700 laypeople, 4,500 religious and 2,100
priests joined a signature campaign claiming election fraud.
Those charges have increased tensions between Catholics and the Park
government, leading some to call for her resignation. It is not uncommon for
Korean Catholics to hold prayer rallies at the diocesan and national levels
protesting political issues.
The Justice and Peace Commissions of the Korean bishops’ conference and leaders
in all 15 Korean dioceses, except the Military Ordinate, have joined in the protests.
Moses Kwon Oh-kwang, president of the Catholic National Federation for Justice,
lamented in a March press conference that in the current plan, Pope Francis
would greet Park in her office. He suggested that Francis avoid any formal
presidential greeting and instead focus on the social needs of the people by
visiting with the poor and needy of the nation.
In late April, Kwon and three other representatives from lay nongovernmental
organizations met with Bishop Peter Kang Woo-il, president of bishops’ conference,
who is viewed as sympathetic of social justice issues. That meeting, however, did
not lead to any changes in the papal itinerary.
Francis will also visit the Catholic-operated Kkottongnae, or Flower Village, which
provides services and shelter for the poor and homeless and is part of a wider
charismatic renewal movement within Korea.
The founder-director of Kkottongnae was charged with embezzlement of state
subsidies a decade ago. Some Catholics, especially religious, say Kkottongnae was
put on the papal itinerary in part for its state connections and in part because of
its tarnished history.
Finally, some lay Catholics have asked that the papal Mass for peace not be
celebrated at the Seoul cathedral, but in a location closer to the border between
North and South Korea.
Many lay Catholic groups see Francis’ visit as too formal and too closely
connected with state politics. So far, they say their voices have been largely
neglected by the Korean bishop. As a result, they continue to gather signatures
and prepare a direct appeal to the Vatican to modify the plans for the papal visit.
[Paul Hwang, chairperson of the theological committee of Pax-Romana, lives in
Seoul, South Korea.]