Taking Root in Seoul
Step into the streets of Seoul and you will encounter a city like few others. Spanning both sides of the Han River, this sprawling metropolis serves as the technological, political and commercial center of South Korea, boasting a population nearly three times the size of Los Angeles. With one eye on the past and one on the future, Seoul is home to traditional temples with gracefully flowing eaves and modern skyscrapers lit with neon messages.
Despite the intense hustle and bustle of one of the world’s largest metropolitan areas, many Koreans are finding more time for spiritual pursuits. In a land that boasts no religious majority but is home to many who profess Buddhism, Christianity or no religion at all, Catholicism has seen significant growth in recent decades. According to the most recent South Korean census, Catholics grew from 5 percent of the population in 1985 to 11 percent in 2005.
“There is at least one Catholic church in every neighborhood,” said Deacon Roy Mellon, who serves the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA.
It is in this environment, this massive city surrounded by mountains and overlooked by the N Seoul Tower, that the Knights of Columbus has established its latest international presence, following its expansion into Ukraine and Lithuania in 2013 and Poland in 2006. More than a century after chartering the first councils in the Philippines, the Order’s future in Asia looks just as stunning as the Seoul cityscape.
The Order first set down roots in Korea in February 2007 with the formation of Bishop John J. Kaising Council 14223 at U.S. Army Base Camp Humphreys near Osan. The military council was named in honor of an auxiliary bishop of the U.S. military archdiocese who had passed away a month earlier. These close ties to the military ordinariate both in South Korea and the United States would form the foundation of the Order’s growth, success and expansion in Korea.
According to Deacon Mellon and Deacon Joseph Pak, another early member of Council 14223, Koreans are familiar with the European knights of old from Western literature, films and popular culture. Explaining the Knights of Columbus, however, was a different story.
“Within the military community there was not a full realization of what the Knights could do, that they could become the backbone, the structure of the parish,” said Deacon Mellon, who, along with Pak, served as one of the council’s grand knights. “We’ve gone from, ‘What’s the Knights of Columbus? Who are those guys?’ to ‘Oh, just ask the Knights!’”
As its membership grew, Council 14223 was given space on base for meetings and ceremonies, and it even established round tables at other military installations. In 2008, the council moved about 40 miles north to U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan, a base in the heart of Seoul that is home to more than 21,000 service members, contractors and their families. The first charitable programs focused on helping fellow soldiers serving in the Middle East and providing assistance to South Korea’s vast, and often poor, migrant worker population.
One early champion of the Knights in Korea was Bishop F. Richard Spencer, auxiliary bishop of the U.S. military archdiocese. While serving as a U.S. Army chaplain there, then-Father Spencer transferred his K of C membership to Council 14223. When he was ordained a bishop in 2010, his advocacy for the Knights only increased.
“As an army chaplain in Korea in 1999 and again from 2006-2009, I saw a great need for a men’s fraternal organization to be the umbrella that would promote Christian living and fraternal care while soldiers were on assignment with our U.S. military … and the Knights was an ideal framework and format,” said Bishop Spencer.
STEPPING OFF BASE
Discussions about starting “civilian” councils in Korea began informally during Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson’s 2010 trip to the Philippines and Japan. Deacon Pak presented a broadly outlined strategic plan, which was received favorably, and Anderson advised using the next 12-24 months to better educate Korean priests and bishops about the work of the Order.
As it turned out, members of Council 14223 did not need to look far to find an ardent supporter among the Korean hierarchy. After overcoming what Bishop Spencer called “cultural suspicions” and learning more about the Order’s good work, Bishop Francis Xavier Yu Soo-il of the Military Ordinariate of Korea joined the council with Bishop Spencer accompanying him to the exemplification ceremony in 2011.
“Once [Bishop Yu] saw and realized that a member of the Knights becomes a ‘ministry multiplier’ to his chaplains, he embraced the idea and the desire to introduce the Knights into the Korean culture and military environment,” said Bishop Spencer.
Deacon Pak added, “Bishop Yu without him we couldn’t do anything. He provides that hierarchical support in a very complex Korean culture.”
Discussions continued during the supreme knight’s 2012 trip to Korea, during which he visited the border of the Demilitarized Zone, met with Bishop Yu and other church leaders, and was present as Pak and Mellon were installed as acolytes for the U.S. military archdiocese (they later became the archdiocese’s first-ever permanent deacons). It was also during this trip that the Order established its first Fourth Degree Assembly in Korea: Bishop Joseph W. Estabrook Assembly, which was named for another deceased military bishop.
Things proceeded swiftly from there. Bishop Yu attended the 2013 Supreme Convention in San Antonio and, according to Bishop Spencer, “returned to Korea with great enthusiasm and ready to begin the introduction process of growing K of C councils in the Republic of South Korea military communities.” Deacons Pak and Mellon, meanwhile, worked with the Supreme Council to begin translating some of the Order’s written materials, while legal issues were ironed out with several Korean law firms.
Finally, the formation of St. Andrew Kim Taegon Council 16000 was announced at the 132nd Supreme Convention this past August. The council’s namesake is particularly fitting: St. Andrew Kim Taegon was the first Korean-born Catholic priest and was martyred with more than 100 others during the persecution of Catholics in the mid-1800s.
With approximately 40 members and growing, Council 16000 is off to a promising start. Furthermore, the Knights in Korea and the Catholic Church there in general got a huge boost when Pope Francis visited the country Aug. 13-18 for the 6th Asian Youth Day. During his apostolic trip to the “land of the morning calm,” the Holy Father urged unification between North and South Korea, met with Buddhist, Orthodox and Protestant religious leaders, and beatified 124 Koreans martyrs. Meeting with the bishops of Korea, Francis praised the “prophetic witness of the Church in Korea [as] evident in its concern for the poor and in its programs of outreach, particularly to refugees and migrants and those living on the margins of society.”
Indeed, the pope’s visit seemed to capture the imagination of the country, with Korean celebrities (known as K-pop stars) recording a song in the pope’s honor and early polling by Pew Research showing that 86 percent of Koreans share a favorable opinion of Francis.
For the Knights of Columbus, the visit was personal.
“The pope’s recent visit to Korea has proven that our ancestor martyrs did not die in vain,” said Chan-Woong “Paul” Moon, financial secretary of Council 16000. “The pope consoled a hurt Korean Church and led Korean Catholics to be more influential and helpful. Pope Francis also gave us homework work for the poor and the needy.”
In short, Korean Knights are serious about heeding the pope’s call to minister to “those living on the margins of society.” Deacon Pak hopes that Council 16000 and future K of C units will concentrate on supporting seminarians and migrant centers; Deacon Mellon expects that Knights will look to shore up areas that are neglected by the country’s already extensive social service programs; and Moon is looking forward to strengthening the council overall and holding First Degree exemplifications in Korean. All see the promise of continued expansion.
“The plan is to move into the individual parishes and show that the Knights can become the right arm of parish communities, while still joining together to take on larger-scale projects,” said Deacon Mellon.
Bishop Spencer, meanwhile, is looking forward to the benefits that come when like-minded Catholic men gather to grow in the faith not unlike Father Michael J. McGivney when he founded the Knights in 1882.
“As our beloved Knights of Columbus councils multiply and grow … a great groundswell and need for ways that enable Catholics to live their baptismal promises will be even more desirable,” the bishop said. “The Knights of Columbus will be there to support and assist in this continual growth of the Catholic faith in South Korea.”
PATRICK SCALISI is senior editor of Columbia. He previously covered the growth and expansion of military councils in Japan and Korea as editor of the Military Knights in Action newsletter.