South Korea, is the Catholic boom over?

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Data from the statistical yearbook published by the Bishops' Conference show that the number of Catholics in South Korea will grow by no more than 0.2% by 2021, compared to 3% just a few years ago. Catholics now make up 11.3% of the population, but the average age of the faithful is getting older and new vocations to the priesthood are declining. Bucking the trend, the contribution to the mission remains high, with 1115 Korean missionaries carrying out their ministry in 80 countries around the world.

Seoul (AsiaNews) - The impetuous growth of the Korean Catholic community seems to have come to a virtual standstill, hindered by the Covid-19, but also by demographic decline and the social transformations that the new generations are experiencing in Seoul. This is revealed by the data in the statistical yearbook of the South Korean Bishops' Conference, the annual report that since 1954 has taken a snapshot of the numbers of local communities as of 31 December of the previous year. Data released this week also show the decrease in priestly ordinations, while in all the dioceses of the peninsula, by now, the average age of the faithful is getting older.

Until a few years ago, the statistical yearbook of the Korean Church was the document that certified the advancement of Catholicism in Seoul, with a growth in the number of faithful that still at the beginning of the 2000s exceeded 3% per year. For some time, however, the number of new baptisms had already begun to slow down, and the phenomenon was further accentuated with the Covid-19 season.

According to the latest data released on 31 December 2021, Korean Catholics numbered 5,938,045, or 11.3% of the country's population. Compared to the previous twelve months, the balance is positive by 14,745 units (+0.2%). Given that the drop in the number of births in South Korea since 2020 is leading to a decrease in the overall number of inhabitants, the number of baptised people has increased by one decimal place compared to last year. But this is a much smaller percentage growth than the +0.8% still recorded in 2019, the year before the pandemic.

Covid-19 also left its mark very strongly on the rate of attendance at Sunday Mass, which fell to 8.8% of the faithful compared to 18.3% in 2019. This drop is particularly evident in the dioceses of metropolitan areas, those most affected by the spread of the contagion.

However, the figure that is causing most concern in the Korean Catholic community is the average age of its faithful. 23% of those baptised are now over 65 years old and there is no diocese in which this age group does not represent at least 20% of the community. On the other hand, in the 20-24 age group, young Catholics represent 9.2% of the population, more than two percentage points less than the general figure of 11.3%.

The average age of the Korean clergy is also on the rise: with only 93 priestly ordinations, 2021 was the year with the fewest new priests in South Korea's dioceses in the last decade. Thirty per cent of Korean priests are now between 40 and 50 years old. In 2021, in fact, there were 883 students in diocesan seminaries and another 254 in religious orders. A figure that - overall - corresponds to -28.4% compared to the 1317 seminarians recorded in the 2011 yearbook.

Despite this, the Korean Catholic Church continues to show its vitality in one area: its openness to the mission "ad gentes". In a country that has a total of just 5,626 priests, Korean missionaries continue to leave for the whole world. There are currently 1,115 of them, 237 priests, 57 religious, 815 nuns and 6 lay people. They carry out their ministry in 80 different countries and in the last year have opened new missionary presences in Liberia, Egypt, Venezuela and Pakistan.