VATICAN CITY, August 5, 2013 - Twice a month the Vatican secretariat of state publishes modifications to the Annuario Pontificio for the current year. The booklet of last July 1 contains a curious piece of news on one of the most impenetrable countries of the globe, North Korea, which periodically makes international headlines with the threat of using nuclear weapons.
The news is that the Holy See is finally recognizing as vacant the diocesan see of Pyongyang, following the death of its bishop, Francis Borgia Hong Yong-ho, born on October 12, 1906, ordained a priest on May 25, 1933, appointed apostolic vicar by Pius XII on March 24, 1944, and consecrated the following June 29.
But the news is not that a prelate has died at the venerable age of more than 106, which would be a record, but the fact that the Annuario no longer includes the name of Hong, who for decades appeared as the ordinary of Pyongyang but with the specification that he was to be considered "missing."
Bishop Hong was, in fact, one of the 166 clerics who were killed or abducted in the course of the terrible persecutions that took place in North Korea at the end of the 1940's with the advent of the communist regime of Kim Il-sung.
Therefore, for more than sixty years nothing more was known about him, but the Holy See never forgot him. And it always kept his name in the official who's who.
Not only that. On March 10, 1962 John XXIII decided to elevate to the rank of diocese the apostolic vicariate of Pyongyang, and appointed as the first bishop precisely the "missing" Monsignor Hong.
The perseverance of the Holy See in keeping alive for decades the name of the "missing" bishop was - as explained years ago by the cardinal, now emeritus, of Seoul Nicholas Cheong Jinsuk - "a gesture of the Holy See to mark the drama that was and still is lived by the Church in Korea."
But the decision made this year to recognize the death of Hong does not mean that this "drama" of the Korean Church is considered closed. Its motivation is another. It is connected to the fact that the Korean bishops have asked the Vatican congregation for the causes of saints for the "nihil obstat" to open the cause of beatification of Hong and 80 of his martyr companions. And of course no one can be a candidate for the glory of the altars if he is not dead, officially as well.
While in South Korea the Catholic Church has seen in recent decades a substantial increase in baptisms and vocations, in the impenetrable communist North it is not known how many Catholics there are, priests cannot be present there on an ongoing basis, and there exists only one religious edifice controlled by the regime.
So nothing has changed with the death in 1994 of Kim Il-sung, whose unmissable "opera omnia" was published in Italy by Jaca Book - a publishing arm of Communion and Liberation - in the early 1970's. Nor with the death of his son, Kim Jong-il, in 2011. Nor with the arrival as leader of the country of the latter's son, Kim Jong-un.
As Cardinal Cheong recalls, "before 1949 in North Korea there were 55,000 Catholics. When the persecution was unleashed many of them fled, but many were killed. Today there are some who say that there are still a thousand Catholics, others say that there could be three thousand. But there is no way of knowing for sure."
All of the churches were destroyed as well. Except for when in 1988 "the Olympics were celebrated in South Korea, all of a sudden one was built in Pyongyang, from nothing. But this was not a miraculous event: it is easy to intuit that this was a move by the regime to try to demonstrate that also in the North there were Catholics free to profess their faith. Which obviously does not correspond to the reality."
This was, in fact, a "church" run by a self-proclaimed Catholic association led by a layman, Jang Jae-on, who until a short time ago was also the president of the North Korean Red Cross.
In recent decades the Holy See, although formally considering the see of Pyongyang as not vacant, has always appointed the archbishop of Seoul as its apostolic administrator. But he has never been able to visit it.
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