While in Seoul, South Korea this summer, I had the opportunity to attend Saturday evening Mass at Myongdong Cathedral with a young French physicist friend.
I couldn’t understand a word—it was entirely in Korean—but I was deeply moved. There were no rich vestments, incense, Gregorian chant, or Renaissance polyphony. Nevertheless, I felt—as I have rarely felt in the last forty years—that this was a Mass as Mass was meant to be. The reverence was profound, the sense of being in a sacred place powerful. It was very Catholic and at the same time very Eastern. At the elevation of the consecrated Host, a gong sounded softly and everyone bowed deeply from the waist and held that posture for several seconds, until the gong sounded again. The same at the elevation of the chalice. At the “kiss of peace,” there was no shaking of hands and “superficial chumminess” (as my one-time pastor, the late Msgr. Myles Bourke, called it). Rather, people silently bowed to those around them. Of course, bowing has always been a part of the mass, and even in the western countries we are supposed to bow at the words “by the power of the Holy Spirit, he was born of the Virgin Mary and became man” in the creed. But hardly anyone does bow over here, and the few who do make a perfunctory nod of the head. In Korea, everyone made a deep and extended bow at that part of the creed.
There is something about the Korean language and the way it is prayed that made the prayers of the congregation—even though recited and not sung—sound like chant. (My pastor made exactly the same observation to me about a Vietnamese mass he attended—before I had a chance to tell him of my Korean experience.) There were, as here, four hymns—real hymns, not show tunes. They seemed Western, though I did not recognize the melodies. Everyone sang with strong and good voices. About half of the women (of all ages) wore mantillas. The celebrant was young, as were the priests who assisted him at Communion. He moved with dignity and grace and his sermon was delivered in a quiet and serious way. It contained humor, for occasionally chuckles rippled through the congregation. But he did not indulge in theatrics, hamming it up or striving for effect. The cathedral was not packed, but quite full. And according to the church bulletin they had two Saturday evening Masses and ten (!) Masses on Sunday, starting early in the morning and extending throughout the afternoon.
When we left, I remarked to my friend: “If this is how Mass is normally celebrated over here, it is no wonder the Church is growing by leaps and bounds.” And apparently it is how Mass is normally celebrated in Korea. Thirty years ago there were one million Catholics in South Korea, now there are five million. Incidentally, it is not uncommon to see nuns—mostly young—as one travels around Seoul.