It is common knowledge
that in Korea, unlike many other countries, the preaching of the
Gospel has been remarkably well received. This is surely not just
accidental. It is my conviction that this will continue for as
long as we do not separate Korean culture from the experience of han.
Not only Catholicism, but all forms of religion are doing well in
Korea. The Protestant denominations are flourishing, and Buddhism
is enjoying a revival. Primitive religions, quasi-religions and
even superstition and occult sects are also thriving.
Manifestations of Han
What is this thing called
han, which seems to be peculiar to Korea? No foreign word
can adequately translate it, for it includes such different
nuances as are conveyed by the words rancor, grudge, hatred,
lamentation, regret, grief, pathos, self-pity, fate,
mortification, etc. Han's exact meaning can only be grasped
Korean culture is the
culture of han.
Han flows in the blood of Koreans and manifests itself in Korean
customs, literature, art, and in the melodies and folk music which
hark back to home and youth, in the plaintive songs of the
farmers, and in the cynicism, sarcasm and humor of the mask dances
which make fun of the nobility. It is present in the tears of
reunion or of separation, and we find it especially in the sobbing
and wailing at a funeral. Television captured it in the
heart-rending weeping and hugging of the reunion scenes of the
families dispersed during the Korean War, and again last year when
some divided families met in Seoul and in Pyongyang.
Blessing or Curse?
The prevalence of han
might be attributed to the unfortunate fate of the Korean nation
which for centuries has been the victim of the avarice of
neighboring countries, and endured the bitter experience of
serving others. However, the long history of powerful nations
politically, economically, and diplomatically exploiting Korea is
not the sole origin of han. Something within ourselves,
namely a factor created by our own race has also been operative.
The age-old intransigence of political parties, economic
inequality, class and sexual discrimination - all these have
contributed greatly to the creation of han culture.
At one level han
appears to be the legacy of a curse, but in reality, it has been a
kind of blessing, because it has been the catalyst to cause us to
search for God. Tertullian said that human beings are born with
Christian nature. I do not have the boldness to say that the
Korean people have a natural Christian heart, but certainly we are
naturally endowed with a deep religious disposition. I believe
that it is one of han's blessings. God uses han to
shake us up, to wake us from our sleep, and thus He makes us
realize the vanity of life, the ultimate emptiness of the things
of this world. Through han He prevents us from finding
satisfaction in earthly things and stimulates us to search for the
absolute and everlasting.
Thirty years ago, when
the economic level of Korea was very low, I heard many people
saying: "Because Korea has just undergone a terrible war and
is now stricken with destitution, it is natural that many people
are seeking consolation and refuge in religion. But wait and see!
When the economic level reaches the standard of Japan (U.S. $800,
per capita income at that time), Korea will no longer attach great
importance to spiritual and supernatural values." Their
gloomy prediction turned out wrong!
Although the economic standard of Korea today far surpasses the
level of Japan at that time, our people's religious spirit shows
no sign of weakening but, on the contrary, continues to grow more
vigorous. Pope John Paul II noted the high standard of living and
education among Korean Catholics. I am not, by any means, just
vainly boasting about this. The preaching efforts of the Church
have been mainly directed to the ordinary people, but the fact is
that the response of the wealthy and intellectual classes has been
exactly the same. This blessing is the heritage of han.
I used to ardently wish
that han would disappear from our land but today, as I have
come to realize that han is a precious gift bestowed on the
Korean race by God, my attitude has changed. Han was the
inspiration of our Catholic martyrs, and as long as han
exists the Korean people will remain a religious people, even if
our economic strength increases tenfold. Han has truly been a
messenger of God, and through it the Korean people are blessed