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Year of Faith does hold the promise of renewal

Pope Benedict XVI announced the Year of Faith in his Porta Fidei (Door of Faith) letter last October. It will be inaugurated on October 11 this year, a day that marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the Second Vatican Council and the 20th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Such significant memorials have something in common: the renewal of the Church and of our faith. This was also the motivating factor for Pope John XXIII in convening Vatican II.

The impact of the Council has been different from country to country, but in Korea it did help move the Church towards a more participatory body in terms of religious dialogue and ecumenical movements.

As of the end of 2011, the local Church had 5.32 million Catholics, or 10.3 per cent of the total population. In 1962, when the Council was convened, it had only just more than half a million.

Many factors contributed to such a sharp rise in the Catholic community, but I think the Council was a principal one.

The Church in Korea saw a six to 10 per cent increase each year after the 1960s. However, in the last decade, the rate of increase has dropped to two per cent, similar to trends in the west.

Statistics of the Catholic Church in Korea for 2011 show other interesting trends.

First, the aging trend within the Church has outstripped the trend in local society. Over the last decade, the national population under the age of 19 has decreased by 15.3 per cent. However, within the same age bracket in the Church, they have decreased by 24.4 per cent.

In addition, Koreans over the age of 70 have increased by 81.4 percentage points, while Catholics over 70 have increased by 127.5 per cent.

Without attempting to read too much into the numbers, it is safe to conclude that faith is not being passed down from generation to generation as it once was. We need new ways and perspectives for age-specific pastoral ministry.

Second, the number of local Catholics who participate in receiving the sacraments has declined.

In the last decade, the number of baptisms has declined by 24.2 per cent, while marriages have dropped by 25.2 per cent. The number of Catholics who regularly attend Mass is also down.

Though the Church in Korea has grown externally, it is also true that participation in what is the core of the life of faith and an indication of spiritual maturity—the sacraments—has greatly weakened.

Lastly, the number of infant baptisms, first communions and Sunday school attendance, all of which are indicators of how well faith is being transmitted to the next generation, has fallen steeply over the last decade.

These trends suggest that the Korean Church may be repeating the failure of its European counterpart and requires an analysis of socio-cultural challenges and factors within the Church.

There is some good news, though, in that the local Church has increased its presence in overseas mission.

As of 2011, the Church in Korea had sent 899 missionaries to 77 countries and the Korean bishops have expressed their commitment to more active mission work in the future.

Overseas mission can help the local Church contribute to the spiritual maturity of the local body by training more priests for pastoral work abroad.

But perhaps the most important obstacle remains—the need to battle the temptations of secularism inside the Church and to renew the commitment of local Catholics in the coming Year of Faith (UCAN).


Joseph Eom Jae-jung

Catholic Pastoral Institute of Korea

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