Korean, Confucian, Catholic.

by Theo Poward

South Korea is a fascinating country for any student of Theology. Recently, I was lucky enough to attend a remembrance service that stands at the forefront of liturgical developments aimed at answering questions that are endlessly raised about how to balance local and global theological identities.


Christianity has been on the rise in Korea especially since the 1940’s. In 1945 the percentage of Christians in the population was 2%, as of 2014 it is over 30%. Catholics make up a sizable minority of this group. After first being introduced to Korea in 1603, Catholics have faced persecution, martyrdom and gradual acceptance.

Christianity in Korea has blended with the culture. The Korean church has focused on education, and has become an indistinguishable part of Korean culture. It supported the move from using Chinese characters to the Korean Hangul phonetic script by translating Gospels and Hymnals into Korean as far back as the early 1800s. And during the Japanese occupation, Christianity became a shelter for Koreans who resisted the Cultural colonialism of the Japanese. In this period it became independent and self sustaining, and a key supporter of Korean Nationalism.

After Korea won its independence Korean Christian Political Theology developed the concept of Minjung. This theology focuses on the value and the suffering of the individual, drawing from the idea of humanity being in God’s image and traditional Korean philosophy. It was a huge influence by Christian politicians who fought for Democracy in Korea in the post Korean War years.


Inculturation is the process by which a global theological tradition comes to be seen as at home in local cultural practices. When it stops being seen as a ‘foreign’ influence. One of the key ways that this happened in Korea is through the Catholic church’ adoption of traditional Confucian ceremonies.

Memorial Service

Recently, while in Busan, South Korea, I was invited to witness and take part in a memorial service which was based on Confucian ancestral veneration rites. I was lucky enough to get the liturgy of the service explained to me, and want to share it with you now, to the best of my ability.

The Liturgy

The following is performed at the grave of the deceased. It needs to be performed alongside a memorial service at a church, which is normally performed later on the same day.

Introductory Rites

The service begins with everybody present performing three sets of two bows. These are full bows, the person goes from a standing position, to their knees, and then touches their forehead to the ground in front of the grave. The first bow is for the living, the second for the dead, and the third for the divine. After bowing the people are expected to cross themselves.

The bows are followed by a reading from the Psalms. In this service the words were taken from Psalm 50, 54, 227, 436, and 462.

After the reading comes the opening prayer. This prayer, and throughout the service, is performed by the leader, who is the head of the family and next of kin for the deceased.

The liturgy of the Word

This section of the ceremony involves a reading from the gospels. The reading is introduced. In this service it was from John 15: 1-12. After the reading the Leader says some words about the Deceased.

Memorial rites

The leader lights incense and everybody bows twice. This is followed by a reading from a Catholic Prayer Book; a prayer for the comfort of victims of war and disaster.

After this there are call and response readings of Psalms 129 and 50.

Following this there is a short reading about Memorial Day itself, a Day traditionally where the dead are celebrated, this includes a Prayer of Thanksgiving for the coming New Year.

Closing Rites

After this section is introduced, there is a prayer for the comforting of the souls of the people who have died. Then Psalms 129 and 50 are re-read.

The formal part of the service closes with The Lords Prayer and the Hail Mary.

Everybody bows twice and Alcohol is served. Everybody takes a cup of alcohol (normally some form of rice wine, a spirit). In turn, everybody drinks some in front of the grave, the remainder is poured on the grave.

At the close of the ceremony everybody shares the food that has been laid out in front of the grave. Everybody is expected to have at least some of the food and the food should be finished that day.


This ceremony, and it’s mixture of Catholic and Confucian elements may seem strange, especially to Western Christian readers. But it should be known that combining with local customs provides a legitimacy and a way of translating and communicating across cultural boundaries. It is present across the world, a cursory look at the history of Christmas celebrations in the West shows the same thing.

This service is solemn and the family that shared it with me demonstrated incredible hospitality and grace. As Christianity continues to grow in East Asia and Africa, new ways of interpreting the liturgy and the traditions will develop. This is to be celebrated. The Catholic Church is also to be applauded for its increasingly open stance to such things occurring, as are the Korean Christians who demand that they are given the freedom to do so.

The theological traditions of the world are lived traditions, and they should reflect the diversity of ways that people live their life. There is not a prescriptive center that all must adhere to. A theological tradition is not owned, it is lived.