The Saints of Korea
It was entirely by lay evangelization that Catholicism came to the Korean peninsula. That is what Pope Francis reminded us at a Mass on August 16 in Seoul, South Korea, where he beatified Korean martyrs Paul Yun Ji-chung and 123 companions, praising their “great sacrifices” and their call “to put Christ first.”September 20 is the feast day of the Korean saints, 103 martyrs. Most prominent among these magnificent stewards of the Catholic faith are St. Andrew Kim Taegon, the first native Korean priest, and St. Paul Chong Hasang, a heroic Catholic lay leader. These 103 saints were canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1984, also in Seoul.
Because of the secrecy involved, it is impossible to date the origin of Catholic evangelization in Korea 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 there. 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 this outside world, obtained Catholic literature and began to study. From these small beginnings, the Catholic community 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. It wasn’t until 1883 that religious freedom finally came to Korea.At his Mass of canonization in 1984, Pope John Paul II said: The Korean Church is unique because it was founded entirely by lay-people. This fledgling Church, so young and yet so strong in faith, withstood wave after wave of fierce persecution. 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. 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.
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