The Saints of Korea
Catholicism came to Korea almost totally by lay evangelization. Because of the secrecy involved, it is impossible to date its origin with any precision. It may have started in the early 17th century. For centuries, Korea was closed to outside influences, and all contact with foreigners was forbidden. Evangelization was difficult. No missionaries went to Korea. Korea refused all contact with the outside world except for an annual journey to Beijing, China, to pay taxes. It was here that educated Koreans, hungry to learn about the outside world, obtained Catholic literature and began to study. From these small beginnings, a home church grew.
A strong Catholic community flourished in Korea under lay leadership before and after missionary priests arrived in the early 19th century and introduced them to the sacraments. However, Korean Catholics continued to practice their faith secretly, knowing they might be killed if they were discovered. Catholicism was seen as a threat to the state ideology of Confucianism and during this century, over ten thousand Korean Catholics were executed with great cruelty and many others perished. It wasn’t until 1883 that religious freedom finally came to Korea.
In 1984, Pope John Paul II canonized 103 of these Korean martyrs in Seoul, South Korea. Speaking at the canonization, the first ever to take place outside of Rome, our late pontiff said:
The Korean Church is unique because it was founded entirely by laypeople. This fledgling Church, so young and yet so strong in faith, withstood wave after wave of fierce persecution. Thus, in less than a century, it could boast of 10,000 martyrs. The death of these many martyrs became the leaven of the Church and led to today’s splendid flowering of the Church in Korea. Even today their undying spirit sustains the Christians of the Church of Silence in the north of this tragically divided land.
Most prominent among these saints are St. Andrew Kim Taegon, the first native Korean priest, and St. Paul Chong Hasang, an heroic Catholic lay leader. In St. Andrew Kim Taegon’s last letter to his parish as he awaited martyrdom by torture and beheading, he wrote:
My dear brothers and sisters, know this: Our Lord Jesus Christ upon descending into the world took innumerable pains upon and constituted the holy Church through his own passion and increases it through the passion of its faithful...
It is the passion of Korean Catholics that causes the Church to flourish in South Korea today, and to persevere in North Korea where it remains a secret, underground church. The feast day for these magnificent stewards of the Catholic faith is September 20.
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