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About Catholic Young People in Korea
Young People in Parishes
In Korea, young adults (20-35 years old, or up to late 30’s lately) participate in church at a parish level. Young adults groups gather before and/or after the Sunday evening Mass which mainly focuses on young parishioners at many parish churches. Two basic services carried by young church members are the choir and liturgical services (e.g., lectors and commentators and even altar servers and sacristans at some parishes). Choirs tend to practice twice a week, mostly once during the week and again before the Mass. Other popular activities include Legion of Mary presidia, study meetings of the home grown Catholic Youth Bible Movement, Society of St. Vincent de Paul and other various prayer meetings. The young parishioners participating in said groups organize a parish-level young adult community and connect with other parishes, mostly by district and diocese.
Another popular service carried out by young people, mostly in their 20s, is to teach at the Sunday school where elementary, middle and high school students are enrolled. Sunday school teachers closely work with the parish priest or the priest in charge of said ministry and form one of the pillars of the youth ministry.
Despite the wide variety of activities, the number of young church participants rarely exceeds 100 per parish. That is a very small number even in light of the fact that the parish-registered Catholics account for 10-20% of the nation’s population, and only 30% of them attend the Sunday Mass. As such, the lack of participating young adults is a concern commonly shared by parish priests.
However, it cannot be said that young Catholics have no interest in Jesus or the Church. In fact, many of them appear to experience spiritual thirst. Every year a growing number of people flock to four-day (or alternative 10-day) retreats organized by the Catholic Youth Bible Movement. University students who are schooling away from home join the Federation of Catholic Students or, if enrolled in Catholic universities, find their way to the campus ministry office. Some young believers sign up on their own for on-and-off retreats hosted by religious orders. Choice weekend started by Fr. Tom Morrow of New York is always crowded by young participants. Spiritual thirst is also expressed by young male Catholics who are fulfilling the mandatory military service. The nationwide military parishioners account for more than 20% of the population in uniform.
Difficulties in Faith – Self-indulgence, Sexual Objectification and Jobs
A lot of difficulties in faith are related with social conditions in Korea. Most young Koreans were tightly controlled during the teen years. Back then, they were either at school or at after-school private institutes except when they sleep, and nothing else was allowed. They must sit tight and memorize knowledge (not wisdom) digested by others. They had no time to question the meaning of life, God’s existence or what is more valuable.
Once they graduate from high school, they face freedom all of a sudden. In the nation known as the global IT powerhouse, an unfathomable measure of information is only a click away. Surrounded by a flood of information, it is difficult to tell right from wrong as it fully exposes people to superficial pleasures, drives society to extreme consumerism and isolates individuals from one another (Evangelii Gaudium, 2). People give themselves up to instant pleasures rather than savor the joy of the Gospels through Jesus who never gave up the hope for resurrection even on the cross.
In the same context, sex has become an object to be exploited, and pre-marital sex has become a matter of no importance. For example, a recently aired condom commercial featured a close-up shot of an actress wearing a rosary ring. Amid the atmosphere, young Catholics find it difficult to carry the light of Jesus by following the teachings of the Church. Instead, they are as confused as their non-Catholic counterpart in terms of values.
Another sad reality is that no one has a clear solution for youth unemployment in the current Korean economic structure. Young job seekers say that they cannot go to church because they feel embarrassed about being unemployed. Those who have landed a job are too busy and tired to go to church. There are realistic and physical barriers as well for young believers who must work on Sundays or work in three shifts.
Peaceful Mind rather than Jesus Christ
There is a concerning issue even for young people who are actively participating in church. When asked about the reason why they go to church in a survey conducted several years ago, more than 60% of the respondents said that they do so because faith gives them peace of mind. Indeed, that captures a facet of Catholics in Korea. Quite a number of parishioners leave church when their relationship with a priest or fellow parishioners turns awkward. For them, salvation or Jesus Christ is not the center of their faith, and peaceful mind outranks other reasons. And such attitudes are risky as they are likely to stay away from the Bible, regard doctrines as something that is almost impossible to grasp and consider teachings of the Church as nothing more than opinions. And this is a challenge not only for the faithful but pastoral workers as well.
Hopes for Young Adults in Korea
It was young people who started the Catholic Church in Korea. John the Baptist Yi Byeok, Peter Yi Seung-hun, Ambrosio Kwon Cheol-shin, Fr. Francis Xavier Kwon Il-shin, Augustine Jeong Yak-jong, Jeong Yak-yong, etc. They resemble Jesus and his disciples in their 20s and 30s. Today, however, it appears rather difficult for the country to accept young people’s movement due to its social structure.
While preparing for the Asian Youth Day and Korea Youth Day, we have sensed affection towards Pope Francis among young people, including the ones who have not frequently shown up at church. We pray that the papal visit does not stop at turning young people’s eyes to the Holy Father but help them join his view on Korean martyr saints, the poor and the young in Asia.
We hope young Koreans encounter God as they proclaim the Word of God, through church activities, including liturgy services, and enjoy friendship with neighbors. We also hope they learn the joy of building the kingdom of God as they reach out to the poor.