SEOUL, South Korea (ChurchMilitant.com) - South Korea is reopening for business, and the country's Catholic churches are poised to resume public Masses.
With the number of new Wuhan virus infections stabilizing — on Sunday, only eight new cases were reported — public spaces such as churches, gyms and bars have been given the green light to reopen. School tests and job interviews are now also permissible. The Korean baseball league, very popular with South Koreans, will also kick off soon. Catholic Churches in South Korea will once again celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass — publicly.
This will be a test case for democratic nations with Catholic populations. South Korea is viewed as a model for other democracies in the fight against the pandemic. Experts say primary factors contributing to the country's success at limiting contagion include its rapid response at the first signs of the crisis and the widespread collaboration of the population.
South Korean Catholics are hoping that their churches will fill quickly and that the Faith will be renewed. Catholics make up roughly 11% of South Korea's population. Since 2000, the number of Catholics has grown by almost a third, to approximately 5.7 million. Thousands of adults are baptized every year, many of them converts from Buddhism.
The Catholic Church has grown rapidly and is widely respected throughout the Asian nation. Vocations are flourishing, many Catholics have ascended to prominent positions within the country, and Christianity has made a major mark on what once was an overwhelmingly Buddhist society. For example, one in four members of Parliament are Catholic, and in 2017 the country elected its second Catholic president, Moon Jae-in.
Nonetheless, in recent years the Church in South Korea has shown signs of weakening. As is the trend around the world, the country's millennials have been abandoning religion of any kind. Less than one-third of young South Koreans express any form of religious faith. In the past few years, drops in church weddings and fewer people participating in confession have been observed. Mass attendance has been waning, with a fall of almost 20% from 2016–17.
International movements of secularism and materialism are in part to blame. South Korean priest Fr. Paul Kim Bo Rok warns that "secularism and practical materialism" are threatening to "draw people away from the religious spirit." The country "is seeing prodigious economic development," he explains. "Today for us there is the passage to abundance and even to wealth."
Yoon Seung-yong, a director with the Korea Institute for Religion and Culture, is also concerned about South Korea's religious devotion. "Especially young and highly educated people are favoring worldly values over religious ones and leaving their faiths, which has resulted in a gradual aging trend for the religious population," he said.
In 2019, South Korea's Parliament ruled against 66 years of legal protections for the unborn, in spite of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea's statement that "Abortion is a crime that kills the innocent life of an unborn, which cannot be justified for any reason."
In 2017, the country recorded its lowest fertility rate on record, with 1.05 births per woman — half the rate needed to keep the population stable. Births are at an all-time low, while deaths have reached an all-time high. Since 2008, the South Korean government has funneled $70 billion into pro-natal campaigns, but still, the rate continues to decline.
As the Church in South Korea reopens for public Mass in the post-shut-in era, faithful Catholics hope that it begins a new era in spiritual renewal — one that can help renew their nation.