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Church grows as South Korea's population shrinks

The number of Catholics in South Korea increased slightly in 2022 as the country’s overall population declined.

The Shrine of Solmoe, the birthplace of the first Korean Catholic priest St. Andrew Kim Taegon. / Korean Culture and Information Service (Jeon Han) via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0).

According to new statistics published April 25 by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea (CBCK), there were 5,949,862 baptized Catholics in 2022, a rise of 11,817 (0.2%) from the previous year

Catholics accounted for 11.3% of the East Asian nation’s population, which shrank by 104,000 to 52.5 million in 2022. 

Under pressure from a range of cultural factors, including family breakdown, increasing urbanization, rural depopulation, and unemployment, suicide has become the fourth-highest cause of death in South Korea, which has the highest suicide rate in the developed world. The nation has seen a string of deaths among young celebrities, including the K-pop star Moonbin earlier this month.

Church organizations operate suicide prevention centers, but Catholics helping to tackle the crisis say that demand for counseling far exceeds availability.

Catholicism took root in the country — whose culture was deeply shaped by Buddhism and Confucianism — in the late 1700s and grew amid intense persecution that saw the creation of countless martyrs

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The Church’s growth in the past 30 years has been described as “explosive” and a model for other Catholic communities. 

In 1995, South Korea was home to 2,885,000 Catholics. A decade later, in 2005, that had risen to 5,015,000.

The Catholic Church has entered the national consciousness partly due to its role in the country’s shift from military dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s. Prominent cultural figures such as K-pop idol Rain have converted to Catholicism, further raising the Church’s profile.

South Korea has sent Catholic missionaries all over the world, including Fr. John Lee Tae-seok, who served as a priest and doctor in Africa, earning the nickname “the Schweitzer of Sudan” before his death in 2010 at the age of 47.

South Korean Catholicism also forged Cardinal Lazzaro You Heung-sik, the prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Clergy, who was baptized at the age of 16 after attending a Catholic school.

In an interview with L’Osservatore Romano earlier this month, Cardinal You said that the Church attracted many Koreans because of its association with freedom.

“The spread of Catholicism in Korea was facilitated by the demands for freedom that it implied in a society and culture framed in rigid social stratification. A society … that was very hierarchical and marked by exclusionary classism,” he said. 

“The sense of fraternity regardless, which is proper to Christianity, had a liberating effect in that context, welcomed by a large part of the population. This also explains why the Korean Church has a good following among young people: young people love freedom.”

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The Catholic Church was named the country’s most trusted religious group in a recent survey. 

Yet the rate of Catholicism’s growth in South Korea has slowed in recent years, falling from 3% annually to the current 0.2%. 

The latest figures showed that, on average, 699,681 Catholics attended Sunday Mass in South Korea in 2022. The percentage of Catholics attending Mass weekly rose from 8.8% in 2021 to 11.8% in 2022. The bishops’ conference attributed the rise to the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions in April 2022.

Mass attendance remains well below the pre-pandemic level of 1,080,687 (18.3%) in 2019. The number of young people attending Sunday Mass has reportedly fallen significantly.

The number of baptisms rose in 2022 by 13.3% compared to the year before, with a total of 41,384 people receiving the sacrament.

There was a slight increase in people receiving other sacraments in 2022 compared with 2021, but the figures have not returned to pre-COVID levels.

There were 5,703 priests in South Korea in 2022, 77 more than in the previous year. There are an estimated 1,051 Catholics per priest in the country, compared with 1,063 in 2021.

Church officials have previously reported that the number of newly ordained priests fell from 131 in 2011 to 87 in 2023, a drop of 35%.

The number of male and female religious combined was 11,576, a decrease of 214 compared with 2021.

The number of overseas missionaries in South Korea in 2022 was 1,007, down 108 from 2021. They came from 69 different countries.

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