Ambassador Han looks at 50 years of Korea-Holy See relations, the Gospel and the common good
by Thomas Han Hong-soon*
Vatican City (AsiaNews) - This year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of full diplomatic relations between South Korea and the Holy See. For the occasion, today 19 December, the Secretary of State Mgr Pietro Parolin celebrated a Mass at the chapel of the Pontifical Korean College in Rome, in the presence of worshipers, ambassadors and chargés d'affaires. AsiaNews asked the Hon Thomas Han Hong-soon to assess these 50 years. The Hon Han was the ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the Holy See from 2010 until 2013. A few weeks ago, he was replaced by Mr Francis Kim Kyung-Surk.
Relations between the Vatican and Seoul have been strong for a long time, even from before the 50 years we are now celebrating. In fact, Korea and the universal Church had relations even before the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the Republic of Korea.
It is important to stress how much the Catholic Church has contributed to Korea's human and social development, starting in the early days of the Catholic Church in Korea, even under persecution. Afterward, with the presence of the missionaries, Christians contributed to the country's modernization and planted the seeds of human development.
An example of this is the experience of equality between human beings and the dissemination of a culture of love. In the early Korean Christian communities, masters sat next to slaves, in a sign of brotherhood. This was something unimaginable before Christianity.
The Church has always had at heart the common good of the nation. After Vatican II, its contribution to development - with a momentum towards democracy and justice - was even greater.
From a political point of view, it should be noted that even under Japanese colonial rule (1905-1945), the Holy See never ceased to recognize Koreans as a people and as a nation.
At the end of the Second World War, even before Korea was recognized by the international community as a sovereign nation (1948), the Holy See sent an Apostolic Delegate in 1947. Thus, the Holy See was the first country to recognize modern Korea, even before the UN.
The Apostolic Delegate to Korea Patrick Byrne (1888-1950), a Maryknoll missionary, never left the country, not even after the Communist aggression from the North. For this reason, he was arrested and died of starvation and cold in the so-called "death marches" inflicted by the Pyongyang regime. We consider him a martyr. The Holy See tried to share this difficult time with the Korean people.
Fifty years of diplomatic relations have boosted even more the Church's contribution to the Korean people and are another reason to give thanks for this tie. The Church has contributed in every way to the dignity of the people, collectively and individually, in terms of human rights, justice, and above all charity. Even with regards to North Korea, the Church continues to push for reconciliation.
Trying to unify the two Koreas without true reconciliation is meaningless. I am very excited to think back over all these years, looking closely at the special contribution the Holy See and the Church made to the country.
Some surveys have noted this. In a recent survey by a Buddhist organization, the Catholic religion comes first as the most valued and important religion in Korea. Why is this? Because of the commitment and unity the Catholic Church shows and experiences with the Holy See. The Korean Church exists in actual and affective communion with the Holy Father.
This has also led to a staggering growth in the number of faithful. In 1960 the Catholic Church had 500,000 members. Today we are 5.5 million, or 11 per cent of the population. And the more we go up the social ladder - intellectuals, cultural sector, business - the higher the percentage.
Korea is perhaps the only country in the world where the Catholic Church has grown hand in hand with economic development. The increase in economic prosperity and materialism has often been associated with a decline in faith, but Korea dispels this link since the Christian faith has expanded along with economic growth.
The poll I mentioned -by a Buddhist research institute - indicates that over the next 30 years more than half of the Korean population will be Catholic, approximately 25 million or 56 per cent of the total by 2044.
In fact, the Catholic Church has doubled its membership every ten years. In 1985 there were 1.86 million Catholics; they were 2.95 million in 1999 and 5.24 million in 2005. At this pace, we can realistically expect the Catholic Church to be largest group in the country.
All this comes from what the Catholic Church is offering the country: unity, above all unity with the pope. In the 1980s we had the privilege of receiving Pope John Paul II twice (in 1984 and 1989). The coming of the Polish pope was a great gift for evangelization, for the pope is always the most effective missionary and has always been very well received by the Korean population.
Even Pope Francis has had real impact on Koreans. After seeing him express his joy, sense of charity, and love for the sick, many Koreans are taking an interest in the Catholic faith in order to be baptized. For this reason, a visit by Pope Francis to Korea, next year perhaps, would be important. The purpose is evangelization is that of pushing further the culture of love, a love that comes from the Lord.
The growth of the Catholic Church in Korea means that I cannot separate my identity as a Korean from that of a Catholic. The humanization of Korea flows from evangeliaation. This is always the greatest gift that the Church can offer to a country. Therefore, Korea will always be grateful to the Holy See and the Catholic Church.
All the teachings of the Holy Father - catechesis, social doctrine, etc. - must be implemented through the local Church and people in Korea, and the Holy See is grateful to the Korean people for this. Sometimes, the Church's contribution has led to tensions over issues like justice, democracy, ecology . . . . But this does not mean that it has not been appreciated.
For me, the time I spent as an ambassador was a time of abundant grace. In my work I have tried to boost relations between Korea and the Vatican on behalf of the common good.
An ambassador is usually seen as someone sent abroad to lie for his country. I have never had to do that because there is no diplomatic competition or conflicting interests with the Holy See. The Holy See and my country share the same interest in promoting and working for the common good.
Ambassadors to the Holy See do not have to lie; they can be safely honest. When I was unexpectedly appointed ambassador, I felt like the ass in the Last Supper (cf. Matthew, 21:2), which the apostles took on the Lord's order because "The master has need of" him. As "ass" I tried to do my best. At the end of my mandate, I ideally want to say that as Saint Paul said, "I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith."
Now I can go home, return to Korea as an ambassador, but as a Catholic, I remain tied to the Vatican (as a member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity). As for the future, I place myself in God's hands; he has always looked after me, in all my plans and beyond.
Such a strong link between a country in the Far East and the Holy See might also show neighboring countries how to manage such relationships. China comes to mind for example. But it all depends on the attitudes Chinese leaders have towards the Holy See, how they see the role of the Catholic Church in China and the world.
Today, the Holy See has diplomatic relations with 180 countries and its role in support of the common good is seen by everyone as highly positive. The absence of diplomatic relations with the Holy See deprives China of a very important contribution in the globalized world.
* Thomas Han was born on 17 August 1943. Married with three children, he is a graduate in economics from Seoul National University (1965), in social sciences (economics) from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome (1971), and has an honorary doctorate in Law from the Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan. He was a lecturer in economics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS) in Seoul (1972-2008), and a member of the Catholic Lay Apostolate Council of Korea (1984-2010). In addition to various national and international posts, he was also a member of the International College of Auditors of the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See (2008-2010) as well as Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the Holy See (2010-2013).