The Korean Martyrs: The Pursuit of God in the Company of Friends Print
Written by Sherry   
Thursday, 20 September 2007 11:58

Today is the Feast of the 103 Korean Martyrs and an excellent time to reflect upon the remarkable history of the Korean Church, which was founded by lay people, who first encountered the faith through books and gave birth to a devout Christian community of 50,000 and many martyrs before the first European missionaries arrived 50 years later.

From Ann

The history of Korea's Catholic community is unique. Here the laity began to worship as Christians before missionaries came to prostelyze. A group of Korean scholars studied the Christian faith from the books that Lee Sung-hoon brought back from China. These lay Koreans began catechizing others and baptizing them. When the hoped-for religious evangelizers finally arrived, they found their work well begun. During the half century before the first European missionaries managed to sneak into this Confucian country, 50,000 lay people had already become Catholics.

Although a Catholic priest and a monk entered Korea in the 1590's, they were chaplains for the Japanese soldiers stationed there and could not have any contact with the native peoples. The first Korean contacts with Catholicism came through Korean diplomatic envoys who were regularly sent to China where they met Jesuit priests. The priests gave them some Catholic books which the envoys took home with them. A group of Korean scholars became interested in the books and began to study the new religion, comparing it with the Neo-Confucianism which was the traditional philosophy in Korea.

Lee Sung-hoon traveled to China with his father and while he was in Peking was baptized with the name of Peter. This intelligent young man read many Catholic books and tried to imitate the virtues of the saints and to promote the Catholic faith among his friends. On his return to Korea, he organized the first Catholic community, baptizing the new believers himself. These Catholics called one another "believing friends," abolished class distinctions, stopped offering sacrifices to their ancestors and spread the faith using books written in the Korean alphabet.

In 1785, the community was detected by the government and the Catholics were dispersed. Kim Bom-u who had allowed his house to be used as a sort of church was tortured and died two years later. Thus began the first of many persecutions suffered by the early Korean Catholics.

Two years later, Lee Sung-hoon reorganized the group and he and five others made themselves priests and began to administer the sacraments. They soon realized that this was a mistake and sent Yun Yu-il to Peking in 1789 to beg the bishop for priests.

The bishop at last assigned a Chinese priest, but he failed to enter the country having missed his guide. A second persecution had already broken out and Yun Chi-ch'ung Paul was sentenced to death for failure to sacrifice to his deceased mother. A Chinese priest was finally successful in entering the country in 1794, but he soon became the reason for a fresh persecution.

In 1801, Queen Chongsun determined to eradicate all Catholics. She considered the religion a heresy harmful to the customs and traditions of Korea. She issued orders to imprison Catholics of all classes and to punish their relatives. Almost 300 Catholics were killed during this persecution. Those who survived escaped deep into the mountains where many starved to death.

Here, in the beautiful mountainous areas, new Catholic communities were formed. The members shared what they had and practiced their faith without a priest for almost thirty years. During this time, the people continued to write, begging for priests. According to one letter sent to Pope Pius VII, there were more than 10,000 Catholics. A fresh wave of persecution in 1815, however, saw hundreds of Catholics in rural communities arrested and more than thirty killed.

Two priests attempted to enter the country in 1817, but failed. The Holy See tried to send missionaries, but none could enter. A new persecution broke out in 1827 during which hundreds of Catholics were arrested and many were killed.

During the severe persecutions, Chong Ha-Sang Paul and a few others visited Peking more than ten times to appeal for priests. Due to their efforts, the Vicariate Apostolic of Korea was formally established as of September 9, 1831, and the Paris Foreign Mission Society was asked to be in charge of spreading the faith in Korea.

The first Vicar Apostolic of Korea tried unsuccessfully to enter the country and died in Mongolia in 1836. The second Vicar Apostolic, Bishop Imbert, successfully crossed the Yalu River and entered Korea in late december 1837. By the end of 1838, Korea had a bishop, two priests, and more than 9,000 Catholics.

In 1984, during the bicentennial of the Korean Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II traveled to Korea to canonize 103 of some ten thousand martyrs of Korea. This group included 92 lay persons, 45 men and 47 women, from nearly every walk of life.

Today there are 4.5 million Catholics in South Korea which is 40% Christian. The Church there is vigorous, missionary-minded, and growing.

Pray for us that we might be made worthy of the promises of Christ.