The Traditional Mass In Korea | Part One

Source: District of Asia



Catholicism is fairly recent in Korea . The Gospel was only truly proclaimed there at the beginning of the 19th century by priests of the Foreign Missions of Paris, mainly French. It seemed interesting to us to study at the beginning of the 21st century the conditions and questions of Catholics in this Asian country far from Europe and see if they had similar or different liturgical and pastoral aspirations from those we find in France or in other European countries.

To further explore this matter, we will devote three of our next letters to this subject.

The first one we are sending you today will present you the main lines of the history of the Christianization of Korea and the reflections that our special envoy João Silveira was able to gather from Korean priests and faithful.

Our second letter will echo the liturgical and pastoral wishes of the Korean faithful and priests we met.

Our third letter will publish the results of the survey we commissioned this winter in Korea among Catholics in that country to assess their knowledge of the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, their attitudes towards this decision and their liturgical preferences.

As we always mention, your opinions and additional information are always welcome.


Paix Liturgique - João Silveira, you have just returned from a missionary journey in Korea, can you give us some information about Catholicism in Korea?

João - First of all, let's talk about figures, which will give us an idea of the reality of the Catholic community in the country. According to the latest statistics provided by the Korean Bishops' Conference, in 2017, there were 5,813,770 Catholics in South Korea at that time for a population of 51.5 million inhabitants, or just over 11% of the population of South Korea.

This Christian population is divided into 16 dioceses (plus a diocese, now vacant, in North Korea), divided into 1734 parishes, where 5360 priests minister. Seen from the West, it is an extremely flourishing Church. For instance, French Catholicism, which has about 40,000,000 Catholics, is spread over about a hundred dioceses, divided into 13,000 parishes, with less than 15,000 priests, among whom almost 10,000 are over 75 years of age. In other words, the same number of priests (a little more than 5000 in activity) serve eight times more parishes in France than in Korea. In comparison, there are 8 times fewer priests in France: one priest for every 8,000 Catholics, instead of one priest for every 1,000 Catholics in Korea. And let's not compare the average ages!

Paix Liturgique - It is therefore quite a vibrant Church.

João - Yes, still vibrant, but it is also affected to some extent by the post-conciliar crisis. Since the war, Catholicism had been expanding rapidly in Korea: many conversions, many diocesan and religious priestly ordinations, Sunday attendance being more than 60%, etc. But the trend has slowed down over the years, in the Western fashion. Nowadays there are fewer religious and priestly vocations, there are defections after ordinations and Sunday attendance has fallen to 30%, with a drop in the number of adolescents attending Sunday Mass, and a drop in the number of catechumens that are a cause of worry. Despite this, the Church is still much more vigorous than in Europe and especially than in France.

Paix Liturgique - And yet, the Gospel was only recently proclaimed in Korea.

João - The Korean Catholic Church has vivid memories of the recent times - less than 150 years - when she was persecuted. This is where the roots of her contemporary development lie... and it is what most certainly explains the fervent faith of Korean Catholics. In churches in Seoul, you will find people everywhere praying in silence, or following the Way of the Cross in front of each of the stations. Underneath Seoul Cathedral, there is a crypt where many of the faithful pray in deep silence in front of the relics of countless martyrs. It is quite normal to see ladies wearing a veil, always white, at Mass.

Paix Liturgique - Have you found any specific elements in the Church of Korea?

João - The Korean tradition has been steeped in Confucianism since the 16th century, a philosophy that emphasizes almost to excess respect to the social order and the elders, where everyone has a place that one must preserve and hold in high esteem: "the Lord must be a lord, the subject must be subject, the father must be the father, the son must be the son". The Catholic Church largely integrates these social traditions, which are found, for example, in the immense respect of the lay faithful for members of the clergy and more particularly for their bishops.

Paix Liturgique - More respect than in Europe?

João - For Koreans, the religious hierarchy, like other political or economic hierarchies, is natural and must be respected. For example, it is very difficult for a lay person to go to his bishop. Bishops, like elders, have a position of authority that makes them somehow inaccessible to ordinary faithful. The second characteristic of Korean Catholicism is an attachment, which one would tend to describe as almost maniacal, to a unity of form.

Paix Liturgique - For what reason?

João - There are several causes for this, the first one is still related to Confucianism which prohibits any centrifugal movement. There is also recent history: Korea experienced a war in the 1950s and a partition of its territory that is why people avoid everything that could divide them. Finally, we must mention the large number of Protestant churches and Christian sects which have led pastors to discard anything that might appear as a seed of division, or even going overboard - let us remember that the Moon sect was Korean - even if sometimes this unity implies a kind of totalitarianism foreign to the traditional Catholic culture that has lived in Korea for a long time.

Paix Liturgique - That is to say?

 João - I mean there is a regulatory conformism.  For example, many Catholic practices such as communion on the lips or kneeling are not well received in Korea.  One would complain, for example, about the "Western" origin of kneeling down - although this did not cause any problem for Korean Catholicism from its origins to the mid-1960s. On the other hand, the other prohibition, that of communion on the tongue, is undoubtedly linked to the adoption by Korean pastors of modern Western practices which in the Korean context could not easily be challenged....

Paix Liturgique – Do Koreans avoid challenges?

João - As I mentioned earlier, it is not in Korean culture to oppose the hierarchy and the elders, so it is almost impossible not to obey without discussion, even if it does not prevent the Koreans from having their own their opinions.  But they are not used to publicize them…


An article by Jean-Pierre Duteil

It is a commonplace in the history of the Far East to present Korea as a bridge that would have brought together the civilizations and ways of thinking of China and Japan.  Nevertheless, this role of intermediary only worked quite late with regard to the spreading of Christianity, as Korea only discovered this religion at the very end of the 18th century, whereas it had reached Japan in the middle of the 16th century and China at the end of that same century. 

Korea has the originality of having kept the same dynasty, that of the Yi, for more than five centuries, from 1392 to 1910.  Vassal of China, Korea or the kingdom of Choson (Joseon) strictly follows the Confucianism of the Ming, themselves on the throne of the Dragon in 1368.  Buddhism isn’t held in high regard and monks are considered parasites.  The Korean people cannot leave the country, with the exception of a few special cases such as the "embassies" to pay tribute to Beijing.  It is during these trips that some Koreans were able to meet Jesuits working at the court.  A visit to the Catholic churches in and around Beijing was one of the highlights.  However, Korea became increasingly isolationist after several series of events: the Japanese invasions by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1592 and 1597; the replacement of the Ming by the Manchus (Qing) after 1644; Western pressures on China and Japan at the end of the 18th century.  In 1785, Christianity was outlawed while Korea had practically no Christians.  Very isolated from the rest of the world, Korea was known in the 19th century as the "hermit kingdom".

The beginnings of the new religion

The beginnings of Christianity in Korea were due to Hong Yu-han's research.  This young scholar had done a research on Western books that came to China since the time of the first Jesuits in the early 17th century.  His aim was to compare them with the neo-Confucianism promoted by the Yis, the Si-hak school or "pragmatic study", a form of positivism designed to promote the well-being of the people. Attracted by the coherence of Christian doctrine, he began to practice Christianity based only on what he could understand from these two century-old books.  Then some of his friends decided to convert, like Yi Piek and Yi Seung Hoon.  The latter went to collect more information by joining the embassy that Korea sent every year to Beijing: a formal act of vassalage, which results in an exchange of gifts and the handing over of the calendar-horoscope developed by the Astronomical Office in Beijing.

When he arrived in the Chinese capital, Yi Seung Hoon managed to get in touch with the Jesuits, and in particular Father Grammont, from whom he asked for baptism.  The Jesuits themselves did not know the Korean language and writing; communication took place in writing, using Chinese characters.  Father Grammont taught Lee a brief catechism, sanctioned by an examination.  In January 1784 the missionary conferred baptism on the young Korean in the Beitang church, after obtaining the agreement of his father, also a member of the embassy; on this occasion the young man received a Christian first name, that of Peter, in reference to the role of founder of the Church with which Christ had entrusted the apostle.  Equipped with many religious texts, Pierre Yi returned to Korea.

Jacques Ju Munmo, a Chinese priest, was called by Korean Christians and succeeded in entering Korea in 1795.  He met an already large community in Seoul.  The first faithful tried to hold elections to acquire priests, this was the time known as the "pseudo-hierarchy" period.  But the failure of their attempts led them to contact the Bishop of Beijing.  Jacques Ju lived in hiding, fearing the hostility of the State, but succeeded in developing the community which grew from 4000 to 12000 members.  In 1801, after the finding of a letter from the convert Hwang Sa-yeung to the Bishop of Beijing, the first persecution of Christianity was triggered.  Having learned that Christians had been arrested and tortured in order to denounce their fellow believers, Jacques Ju decided to surrender himself to the authorities.  He was tortured too and died after six years and four months of apostolate.

The establishment of Christianity in the 19th century

The Christians of Korea then decided to contact Rome directly, and sent a letter to the Pope in order to obtain new priests.  This first letter was seized by the authorities, which led to the execution of its author; the second letter reached Rome while Pius VII was detained in Fontainebleau on Bonaparte's orders; it was not until 1820 that a third request was received and accepted by Leo XII, then in 1831 Korea was erected as an apostolic vicariate, entrusted to the Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP).

For many years, European missionaries were able to enter Korea.  Pierre Maubant, of the MEPs, was the first in 1811; he was followed by his colleagues Jacques Chastan and Laurent Imbert.  But in 1839 all three were put to death during an outbreak of anti-Christian violence.  As in Tonkin or China, communities were victims of a small incident or, more often than not, of the zeal of a Mandarin who was particularly hostile to the West.  The general context, and in particular the opium wars, weighed heavily.  Having anticipated his early death, Father Maubant had sent eight young people to China to become seminarians; two of these young Koreans were ordained deacons by Bishop Jean Ferréol, who asked one of them, André Kim, to return illegally to Korea.  He succeeded in doing so, and even returned to China by sea.  It was in Shanghai that he was ordained a priest on August 17, 1845.  By boat, he returned to his country accompanied by Bishop Ferréol and Father Antoine Daveluy.  But he was arrested the following year, tortured and executed at the age of 26.  He was canonized in 1984.

Although it is hard to assess to what extent, Christianity continued to make progress underground in this country which like China professed allegiance to Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism.  The real difficulties came from the tensions between the European powers and the various Asian countries when "unfair treaties" were signed: Christians, faithful to a religion from the West, were perceived as agents of foreign countries.  In 1866, the most violent persecution of the entire 19th century broke out.  Christians are systematically hunted down and massacred: it is reported that there might have been 10,000 victims.  Nine priests of the MEPs were beheaded, out of the twelve then present in Korea.  A Korean martyrs' sanctuary, the "Mount of Beheadings", was inaugurated in 1967 in Seoul (Mopo Ju district) to commemorate this latest major wave of executions.  The three surviving priests managed to reach China and, from there, to alert the public.  Due to International pressure, and that of France in particular, this anti-Christian movement abated.  A French expeditionary force arrived in Ganghwa, looted the city and seized royal archives that would not be returned until 2011.

Then a period of calm gradually settled in.  During the 1870s, missionaries seemed to be able to work normally.  But this calm was misleading: in 1877, the Apostolic Vicar of Korea, Bishop Ridel, was arrested.  However, the authorities seemed more lenient: Bishop Ridel was released from prison four months later and was asked to leave the country.  In 1886, a Franco-Korean treaty was signed, which included a clause concerning religious freedom.  However, officials in the provinces had not been informed of these new provisions.  Despite this official ill will, it is estimated that 20,000 Christians were present in the various regions of the country, mainly around Seoul and in the south.  A dozen missionaries of the MEPs participated in the evangelization but there was no Korean priest.  The French missionaries have had a printing press since 1886, and in 1887 began the building of the Seoul Cathedral.  In 1888, at the request of the Foreign Missions, the sisters of Saint Paul of Chartres arrived creating an uproar in the country where, according to Confucianism, the place of a woman is at home.

The challenges of the 20th century

A new element appeared at the end of the 19th century, Protestantism was introduced by an American pastor.  Unlike Catholics, Reformed Christians do not oppose Confucian customs and in particular the cult of ancestors; they have even set up a special rite to celebrate the deceased, Chiudo Yepae.  This has led to a certain amount of goodwill on the part of the authorities.  Also, the Scottish pastor John Ross translated the Bible into Korean at the end of the 19th century.

Under the Japanese occupation, Rome considered Shintoism imposed on Korea in the 1930s as a set of purely civil ceremonies.  Protestant pastors are more aware of the religious aspect of these practices, which they forbade them to their flock.  The Korean people appreciated this attitude of resistance to Japanese imperialism, which benefitted Christianity in general.  In 1919, half of the signatories to Korea's declaration of independence were Christians.  In any case, Protestantism developed, despite the difficulties it encountered at the time, and was well established in the various provinces of Korea where native pastors gradually replaced English or American missionaries.

After the Second World War, the American military government promoted Protestantism between 1945 and 1948.  The Soviet occupation of North Korea led to the exile of many Christians; according to some estimates, two thirds of the Christians lived in the northern part of the country before 1945.  The first President of the Republic of Korea, Syngman Rhee, who remained in power from 1948 to 1960, was himself a Protestant.  During this period, the various Protestant churches worked to seduce the population that had suffered under Japanese occupation and war by relying on a "theology of prosperity" that valued work and the acquisition of wealth, while Korea began to become a major industrial power.  Catholicism tried to respond by refocusing on social issues.  A first Korean cardinal, Bishop Stephen Kim Sou-hwan], was appointed after Vatican II.  South Korea was in the hands of the Park Chung hee military regime from 1962 to 1979, and the Catholic Church opted for a commitment to democracy while the government, influenced by the United States, preferred to remain favourable to Protestants through anti-communism.  Catholicism was seen as more progressive by the public.

During the 1990s, within the framework of a democratic South Korea, the Catholic Church is experiencing a strong development while Protestants suffer from having remained too faithful to the American model.  Like in the United States, they have built megachurches and have seen financial scandals break out.  The number of Christians has become larger than the number of Buddhists during the 1980s-1990s, and these surprising advances that has stuck Asian public opinion are confirmed by the fact that Christians became presidents of the Republic like Catholic Kim Dae Jung (1998-2003) and Presbyterian Yi Myung-bak (2008-2013).

At the beginning of the 21st century, Christianity became the first religion in South Korea, a Far Eastern country traditionally divided, on the Chinese model, between Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist currents.  It is true that only one Korean in two (53%) now declares having a religion.  But among this half of the South Korean population, Christians now prevail over Buddhists (55 versus 43%), which is a unique situation in this part of the world.

Jean-Pierre Duteil (Professor at the University of Paris VIII)

Click here to read The Traditional Mass In Korea | Part Two

Click here to read The Traditional Mass In Korea | Part Three