Local Korean Catholics welcome papal visit to Korea

Father Antonio Kim, a visiting priest from Busan in South Korea (center), is surrounded by parishioners of St. Gregory Nazianzen Church in Los Angeles after Mass Aug. 17. — Credit: MARIA LUISA TORRES

Pope Francis’ visit to South Korea — his first trip to Asia and the first papal visit to the country in 25 years — was received positively by Los Angeles’ Korean Catholic community.

During his trip, the pope beatified 124 Korean martyrs, helped celebrate Asian Youth Day for young Catholics, and even conducted an impromptu baptism for the father of a deceased victim of last April’s Sewol ferry tragedy, which killed 300 people.

Gabriel Kang, a Korean American seminarian at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, said he was touched by the powerful story of the grieving father’s conversion to Catholicism.

“He felt something in the presence of Pope Francis, and the pope offered to baptize the man himself — that’s our pope,” he said. “Pope Francis wants to be with the people, especially the poor and the lowly, and I think his visit helps inspire great courage for people in Korea, especially during this difficult time.

“A lot of people are suffering right now because the economy is not very good, and because of the separation between North and South,” continued Kang, who hopes to be ordained in 2015. “By the pope’s presence in Korea, I think a lot of people felt some peace or consolation from those pains.”

According to Bo Kim, a young adult parishioner at St. Gregory Nazianzen Church in Los Angeles — one of several parishes in the archdiocese with a significant Korean American population — the pope’s visit has stirred a lot of excitement for people of all ages within her parish community.

“It’s truly an honor,” she said. “I hope the pope’s visit will lead to a renaissance, a rebirth, of spirituality, of people embracing the [Catholic] faith, of recognizing the love that it stands for.

Korea is a country “with a lot of problems,” she added, “and I hope that with this visit the people will feel renewed strength. I think Pope Francis is the new face that we needed in the Church. He stands for the people who don’t have a voice.”

The historic visit appears to be an acknowledgment of Catholicism’s shifting demographics, as an increasing number of believers are now from Latin America, Africa and Asia. To date, just over 10 percent of South Koreans are Catholic; most are Buddhist or Protestant.

Some believe the late St. Pope John Paul’s two visits to Korea, in 1984 and 1989, helped spur dramatic Catholic growth in the country. The number of Catholics in South Korea grew from 1.86 million in 1985 to 5.14 million in 2005.

Father Antonio Kim, a visiting priest from the Diocese of Busan, South Korea, who is serving at St. Gregory’s for two years, said he believes Catholicism will likely grow in Korea following Pope Francis’ visit, if not as dramatically as after Pope John Paul’s visits. Regardless, he said he feels “honored and blessed” that Pope Francis chose to visit his homeland.

“I am also very thankful for the pope’s generosity through his outreach to the sick, the poor and those in need, especially during this visit, because he took the time to meet with the families [affected by] the Sewol ferry disaster and to reach out to non-Catholics,” he said. “I feel very blessed to have him as our pope.”

Annie Shin, a young wife and mother who has attended St. Gregory’s for 12 years, has a somewhat moderate outlook on the pope’s recent visit to Korea.

“I think it’s good that the pope went to Korea,” she said. “It’s nice to see him interacting with the people, but I think people may be expecting too much from him” — such as addressing specific political issues concerning North versus South, or to help speed changes of safety regulations to avoid future disasters like the Sewol ferry accident.

“I feel that many people may be disappointed if he can’t do those things, but I think his role there is to just visit and make a statement that he thinks about the Asian people,” said Shin. “I think all he can do is pray for us and stand with us.”


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