LISBON – In a sign of the rapidly expanding influence that Asian Catholicism is having in the global church, Pope Francis announced Sunday at the close of World Youth Day in Portugal that the next such gathering will be held in Seoul, South Korea.
Speaking to the roughly 1.5 million young people, according to local authorities, gathered in Lisbon’s Tejo Park for the closing Mass of World Youth Day (WYD) in Portugal, the pope announced the South Korean capital as the next venue for the event, sometimes dubbed the “Catholic Woodstock” for the vast and enthusiastic crowds it attracts.
The Seoul gathering will take place in 2027, meaning in four years, rather than the typical three, as there will be a smaller-scale jubilee for youth held in Rome in 2025 as part of the Jubilee of Hope that year.
Pope Francis visited the South Korean capital in 2014, applauding the strong involvement of laity in the local church and highlighting the country’s many martyrs.
The gap between rich and poor was one theme of the South Korea trip, where strong economic growth from the 1960s to the 1990s made the country one of the Asian superpowers, but also created a new underclass highlighted in the 2019 South Korean thriller Parasite.
Catholicism in the east Asian nation is rapidly growing. From 1985 to 2005, the percentage of the South Korean population identifying itself as Catholic more than doubled, standing today at just over 11 percent, according to the 2005 census, meaning more than five million people.
In South Korea, most experts believe that the dramatic expansion of Catholicism in the second half of the 20th century is related in part to the leadership role played by Catholic activists in Korea’s pro-democracy movement, especially Catholic layman Kim Dae-jung, who served as the country’s president from 1998 to 2003 and who is known as the “Asian Mandela.”
Veteran Vatican commentator Sandro Magister once dubbed South Korea the “Asian Tiger of the Church” given its rapid growth and equally rapidly growing influence in the global church.
One significant aspect of Catholicism in South Korea is that differently than many other countries, its roots do not lie in priests or foreign missionaries, but rather laity of the 18th century who brought Christian texts home from China.
Catholicism then steadily grew in the country for nearly a century before any clergy arrived, resulting in a strong tradition of lay leadership.
South Korea is generally a more democratic, rule-oriented, and pro-Western society, something many analysts attribute to the impact of Christianity. During the 1970s and 80s, mass protests against an authoritarian government, with backing from the military and police, eventually pushed the country into a more authentic and consistent form of democracy.
The Catholic Church was a protagonist in that transition, and the dramatic growth of Catholicism in recent decades has largely been attributed to the high social esteem it enjoys as a result.
However, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been tensions.
In the past, Catholic leaders complained about the practice of developed nations negotiating advantageous bilateral trading agreements. In mid-2006, for example, South Korean bishops opposed a proposed free trade deal with the United States, particularly over its impact on the agricultural sector.
“We cannot help but see these free trade agreements as a desperate countermeasure to save the country’s economy as a whole by selling more cars and mobile phones at the expense of local agriculture,” said Bishop Boniface Choi Ki-san of Incheon, former president of the Korean Catholic bishops’ Committee for Justice and Peace. He called the agreement a prescription for “subordination to the United States.”
There has also been a strengthening of ties between South Korea and the Vatican in recent years, of which the designation of Seoul as the site of the next WYD is another indication.
Many interpreted Pope Francis’s 2014 visit to the city as an eventual down payment on a WYD event, and in 2021 the pontiff further cemented ties with the east Asian nation by naming the former bishop of Daejeon, Lazzaro You Heung-sik, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Clergy and giving him the personal title of archbishop. A year later, the pope named him a cardinal.
You Heung-sik is the first South Korean to lead a Vatican department, and is seen as having a significant international base of support.
In his homily for Mass, Pope Francis offered three verbs which he said would help the youths to take their experience back home and make it meaningful as they settle into their routines: To shine, to listen, and to be unafraid.
Citing the Gospel account of Jesus’s transfiguration, he said the “overwhelming light” that made Jesus shine in that moment would later help the disciples as they faced the “dark hours” of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
“God illuminates our hearts, our minds, our path,” he said, telling them to always move forward “with the light of the Lord.”
Speaking of the day’s Gospel account of the Transfiguration of Jesus, he said Jesus is the source of light for the world, who is love.
He also spoke of the importance of listening, noting that the words spoken by God in the cloud over Jesus on top of the mountain during his transfiguration were, “listen to him.”
“Listen to Jesus,” he said, saying, “this is the secret” to live, “listening to what he says in your heart.”
“He is father and love…we must listen,” he said, and warned them against temptations of selfishness and perfectionism, saying they must listen to Jesus “so you can tell which is the path of love.”
Pope Francis then told youths, “do not be afraid,” noting that this phrase is repeated frequently in the bible and was last words Jesus spoke to his disciples in the Transfiguration.
“Do not be afraid,” he said, saying the joy they have experience during their various WYD events must be shared.
Noting that at times they might not feel capable, the pope said that “as young people, you want to change the world and work for justice and peace. You devote all your energy and creativity to this, yet it still seems insufficient.”
“Yet the Church and the world need you, the young, as much as the earth needs rain. Jesus now speaks to you, dear young people, who are the present and the future of our world,” he said, and again told them “do not be afraid.”
Francis told them to pause and reflect silently on those words, saying Jesus is looking at each of them and “he knows your hearts, he knows your lives” and what their joys and sorrows are.
He closed his homily telling young people to repeat the words “do not be afraid” aloud three times.