ASIA/SOUTH KOREA - Interview with Peter Soon-taick Chung, Archbishop of Seoul: "We believe in the power of hope, dialogue and reconciliation"

Saturday, 25 November 2023 evangelization   peace   reconciliation   youth   society  

by Paolo Affatato
Seoul (Agenzia Fides) - "To resume pastoral work with the faithful in North Korea, it is necessary to proceed step by step, always guided by hope and prayer" and to engage in the field of humanitarian aid in order to "restore trust and open the door to dialogue". This is emphasized by the Archbishop of Seoul and Apostolic Administrator of Pyongyang, Peter Soon-taick Chung OCD, who recently attended the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in Seoul, where he invited young North Koreans to take part in the World Youth Day that will be held in Seoul in 2027 (see Fides, 20/11/2023). In the interview with Fides, he talks about the Church's mission of evangelization in Seoul and throughout Korea.

Let’ start from Seoul: how is evangelization carried out in a large metropolis, where people's lives are technological and frenetic... is there still room for spirituality, is there room for God?

Evangelization in a bustling metropolis like Seoul undoubtedly comes with its set of unique challenges. The fast-paced, technological, and frenetic nature of urban life can be distracting, and it's true that people often find themselves immersed in numerous diversions that may draw their focus away from God and spiritual life.
In a sprawling metropolis like Seoul, the Church's approach to evangelization is marked by adaptability, relevance, and inclusivity.
Pope Francis reminds us of the importance of active listening and open dialogue within the Church, and this resonates with our mission in Seoul as we strive to create an environment of open communication and understanding.
First and foremost, digital outreach plays a crucial role. Utilizing the power of the internet, the Archdiocese of Seoul harnesses social media, live streams of services, podcasts, and online communities to connect with a tech-savvy population. This approach meets people where they are, making it easier for them to engage with the Church's message. This also applies to youth and young adult ministry, since the younger generation is open to new ideas and technology. The Church needs to provide spaces for young people to explore their faith within a modern context. In doing so, we heed the Pope's call for communication that “knows how to find new ways and means for the wonderful proclamation it is called to deliver in the third millennium.”
Community engagement is another vital aspect. Although the digital world offers valuable tools for evangelization, it is important to remember that faith ultimately leads to a personal encounter with God, which finds its deepest expression in physical experiences and communal worship, in the concrete company of one's neighbor . For this reason, the diocesan community actively participates in events and meetings, organizes charitable activities and offers to build relationships with the wider civil society. This style also serves to convey the Christian message of love and compassion for every person. Last but not least, cultural relevance is also of utmost importance. The Church addresses contemporary issues that resonate with urban residents, such as stress management, work-life balance, and personal success. In addition to traditional spiritual guidance, the Church offers practical support, including workshops, seminars, and counseling services to address the unique challenges faced by Catholic faithful living in Seoul. Addressing these concerns bridges faith and daily life and allows the gospel to illuminate the latter.

Is the Church in South Korea missionary also outside the national borders (ad gentes)?

In October 1981, the Korean Church made a historic milestone by sending four priests as missionaries to Papua New Guinea for the first time in its 200-year history. This significant step marked a departure from the tradition of relying on missionaries from Europe and signaled that the Korean Church was embracing its role as a prominent missionary nation, in line with the Gospel message to “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” This missionary endeavor ushered in a groundbreaking era for the transformation of ‘recipient churches’ into ‘giving churches’". There are currently 22 priests from the Archdiocese of Seoul actively engaged in missionary work around the world. It’s also worth mentioning that the Archdiocese of Seoul has established the “Seoul International Catholic Missionary Society” in 2005, and we’ve been blessed to deploy 12 missionaries abroad, reflecting the ongoing commitment of the Archdiocese of Seoul to international missions.
These dedicated priests play a vital role in spreading the Christian faith, providing pastoral care, and engaging in humanitarian efforts in various countries around the world. Their commitment to international missions underscores the Church in South Korea's dedication to serving the global community and sharing the message of Christianity beyond its national borders.
Aside from missionary priests and religious, lay Catholics from South Korea also play a crucial role in foreign missions. They engage in various activities, including teaching, medical assistance, and community development.

About the relations with North Korea, in 2023 there was the 70th anniversary of the armistice. You are Apostolic Administrator of Pyongyang. Are there hopes for steps of dialogue and reconciliation? How is it possible to resume the pastoral care of the faithful in North Korea?

As the Apostolic Administrator of Pyongyang, I firmly believe in the power of hope and the potential for dialogue and reconciliation. While the situation in North Korea poses many challenges, we should never lose faith in the possibility of fostering understanding and rebuilding pastoral care for the faithful in this region. Dialogue and reconciliation are, indeed, crucial steps toward healing the divisions that have existed for too long. The Catholic Church, guided by the teachings of Christ, is dedicated to promoting peace, understanding, and reconciliation, not just in North Korea but globally.
To resume pastoral care for the faithful in North Korea, we must take a step-by-step approach, always driven by hope and prayer. First and foremost, the South Korean Church can play a critical role in humanitarian efforts, providing assistance to the people of North Korea. By addressing their immediate needs and offering a helping hand, we can build trust and open the door to dialogue.
Prayer is a powerful tool. We should never underestimate the strength of prayer in transforming hearts and minds. As we pray for the faithful in North Korea and for peace, we are planting seeds of hope and reconciliation. It's also worth noting that the Archdiocese of Seoul initiated the “Remember the Parishes of the North” campaign in 2015, and it continues to this day. This campaign is a testament to our enduring commitment to the people in North Korea and our unwavering hope for reconciliation and healing. Through these collective efforts, we aim to pave the way for a brighter future and the resumption of pastoral care for the faithful in North Korea.
Furthermore, I must note that while international geopolitics may not always look optimistic, I sensed a shared yearning for peaceful dialogue, deeply embedded in the hearts of both the United States and North Korea when I attended the Catholic Korea Peace Forum in Washington D.C. in 2022. The Forum was jointly hosted by CIJP(U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Committee on International Justice and Peace), CRKP(Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea’s Committee for the Reconciliation of the Korean People), and CINAP(Catholic Institute of Northeast Asia Peace). This hope for dialogue and reconciliation resonates profoundly in our Catholic faith. We firmly believe that the role of the Korean Church and, by extension, the Vatican, can be instrumental in fostering the dialogue of peace.

How does the Church in Korea deal with the death penalty, as it just became again a hot topic in the public debate? Is there a real hope for a definitive abolition in South Korea?

The issue of the death penalty has indeed become a prominent topic in the public debate, and it is a matter that the Catholic Church in Korea views with great consideration. Our faith teaches us the sanctity of life and the value of mercy and redemption. In this context, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea has consistently advocated for the abolition of the death penalty.
In recent developments, messages calling for the legal abolition of the death penalty have resonated through a concert that celebrated peace and life. The CBCK's Justice and Peace Committee, specifically the Subcommittee for the Abolition of the Death Penalty, organized the "Speaking Peace, Singing Life" concert in the courtyard of Myeongdong Cathedral, last spring. This event served as a platform to emphasize our dedication to the cause of ending the death penalty.
Furthermore, the Subcommittee for the Abolition of the Death Penalty held a press conference this year March to address the issue, strongly advocating for the abolition of the death penalty and the establishment of alternative forms of punishment through legislation.

Another issue that shakes Korean society is the phenomenon of suicides in Korean society, especially among young people? Are there any ecclesial experiences that are addressing that problem?

The issue is indeed a deeply concerning and complex problem. The Catholic Church in Korea recognizes the gravity of this issue and has actively engaged in self-reflection and outreach to address the challenges faced by our youth.
The alarming rates of suicide in Korea have led the Church to ask important questions about the role of faith and the Church in addressing this problem. We acknowledge that our young people are often under immense pressure, whether it be from academic expectations, social pressures, or the fast-paced nature of modern life. In this context, the Church seeks to provide support, understanding, and hope to those who may be struggling.
Ecclesial experiences and initiatives have been developed to address the issue of suicides among young people. The Church offers a safe and welcoming space for individuals to share their burdens and seek solace. Pastoral programs and counseling services are available to provide emotional and spiritual support to those affected by this issue. One example of such initiatives is the One Body One Spirit Movement of the Archdiocese of Seoul, which has a dedicated section for suicide prevention. This movement actively visits colleges and provides education not only for Catholic students but also for non-Catholics. These initiatives aim to nurture the mental and emotional well-being of our youth, helping them find hope and resilience in the face of life's challenges.
Additionally, we have plans for “pastoral work through outreach”, especially for those at high risk of suicide. We are developing initiatives where priests and consulting professionals visit individuals who are struggling, as we understand that it may be difficult for them to come to us. One such example is the "AGIT" bus operated by the Archdiocese of Seoul, which drives around Seoul to visit and take care of out-of-school young people. This proactive approach allows us to reach those who may not seek help themselves.
While the issue of suicides remains a complex and multi-faceted challenge, the Church in Korea remains committed to walking this journey with our youth, offering them the light of faith, compassion, and community in their times of darkness.

After "Laudato si' ", "Laudate Deum": how is the Church addressing the issue of sustainability and "care for our common home" in Korea?

Following the important encyclicals “Laudato Si” and “Laudate Deum,” the Catholic Church in Korea has integrated their messages into our mission to address sustainability and the imperative of “care for our common home.” I am humbled to share that, as Archbishop of Seoul, I have released a special pastoral letter this year in September. Titled “Let us learn and practice the encyclical ‘Laudato Si’,” this letter was issued on the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. It serves as a direct call to action, urging our faith community to embrace the teachings of “Laudato Si” and put them into practice in our daily lives. An example would be to encourage parishes to establish an ‘Ecological Environment Division’ under the Parish Pastoral Council to inspire more eco-friendly practices within our parishes.
In my pastoral letter, I’ve also actively promoted the “Friends of Heaven, Earth, and Water,” a lay ecological apostolate movement. The movement encourages the active participation of the laity in caring for our common home, fostering a sense of stewardship and responsibility for the environment. At the grassroots level, many parishes have embraced eco-friendly practices, such as waste reduction, recycling, and energy conservation. By setting an example within their own facilities, these churches inspire their congregations to adopt sustainable practices in their daily lives.
The Church extends its support to local communities for the promotion of sustainable development. This includes endorsing environmentally respectful agricultural practices, backing clean energy initiatives, and advocating for responsible consumption patterns. (Agenzia Fides, 25/11/2023)