SEOUL — South Korea is the lone Asian nation where great spiritual traditions of the East, such as Buddhism and Confucianism, live cheek by jowl in rough numerical equality with Christianity. As a result, Christians and followers of Eastern faiths have learned to pay attention to each other.
For precisely that reason, many observers say Pope Francis’ August 13-18 stay in the country could have an impact well beyond the approximately ten percent of the country’s population that formally belongs to the Catholic church.
Traces of the amicable spirit between Christians and followers of Eastern religions are not difficult to spot.
On Buddha’s birthday, for instance, it’s customary for Catholic churches in South Korea to send congratulatory messages to their Buddhist friends. During the Christmas season, meanwhile, Buddhist temples display banners that read, “Happy birthday baby Jesus”.
“We’re the melting pot of religions” says Wonjun Woo from the Hannim Biblical Institute in Seoul, who adds that “South Korea is the only nation where Buddhism and Christianity coexist with equal power.”
According to Woo, there’s a natural affinity between Buddhists and Christians.
“Both are patient, friendly and ready to listen and talk each other,” he said.
Protestant Pastor Yi Chan Su says that the climate of good feelings is so strong that although some Korean Buddhists resent the fact that the government is covering many of the expenses of the papal trip, none of them will say so out loud.
“They all complain, but never outside of a Buddhist environment,” Chan said.
Religious boundaries here are notoriously fluid. Kwang Il Hul, for instance, is a young Korean volunteer for the pope’s August 13-18 visit to South Korea, who defines himself as a “believer without religion.”
Hul said his grandmother is a Buddhist and his mother an Evangelical Protestant. That mixed heritage has left him ambivalent about his own identity, he said, although his experience has brought him closer to Catholicism.
“But don’t tell my mother, it might get me into trouble” he joked.
The explosion of Christianity in South Korea from the 1960s forward is part and parcel of the country’s overall transformation. One of the poorest societies on earth at the time of the 1953 armistice ending the Korean War, South Korea’s per capita income shot up from $1,300 in 1960 to $1,950 in the 1990s, while its population grew from 23 to 48 million.
Today Korea’s educational system is labeled as one of the best in the world, and the country is home to some of the globe’s most powerful multinational corporations such as Samsung and LG.
Yet locals say the growth also brought new spiritual and emotional turmoil, resulting in another dubious first for South Korea. Today it also leads the world in the rate of juvenile suicides.
“Korean society has lost hope,” says Fr. Pedro Louro, a Portuguese missionary who’s been living in the country for over 14 years.
Louro explains that the there’s a terrible lack of trust in almost everything, recently brought to a boil by the infamous Sewol shipwreck that claimed more than 300 lives. Different versions of events have assigned responsibility to different parties, leading to a sort of generalized skepticism.
Observers say that other factors have also contributed to generating a crisis of meaning.
High demands of the Korean educational system, for instance, have children leaving for school early in the morning and coming back close to midnight, plus daily piano and language lessons, sports and private tuition to supplement school. All this leaves little to no time for family interaction, sources say, and classmates learn to see one another as threats.
Louro, who’s been working with students for many years, says they simply don’t know how to be friends with each other.
According to Louro, the first Latin American pope displays a personal, human side of what it means to be an ethically committed person, and many Koreans see this as something they want to experience in their own lives.
Many observers also say that the very fact that Pope Francis is visiting Korea is something that’s likely to boost national pride, especially given the improbable genesis of the trip.
The official motive for the visit is a gathering of Asian Catholic youth known as “Asian Youth Day,” a much smaller version of the church-sponsored “World Youth Day” that took Francis to Brazil last July.
According to Korean Fr. Emiliano Hong, the papal visit was basically born as a joke.
Last October, according to Hong, Italian Cardinal Fernando Filoni, head of the Vatican’s missionary department, was visiting the Korean diocese of Daejeon. Among other things, Filoni told local bishop Lazzaro You Heung-sik, host of Asian Youth Day, that he would attend the gathering in the name of the pope.
“But I don’t want you to come,” You replied, according to Hong. “I’ll invite the pope to join us.”
Filioni, considering the small size of the gathering and the distance between Rome and Korea, supposedly told the bishop it would be impossible, not to mention absurd, for the pontiff to attend. Undeterred, You sent a personal letter to Francis, passing along Filioni’s pessimistic answer, as well as his personal hope that Francis would decide to come.
The rest, as they say, is history, leaving Koreans of all stripes both delighted and, perhaps, disposed to listen while the pope is in town.