Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Martyrs of Korea

During the early 17th century, Christian literature written in Chinese was imported from China to Korea. On one of these occasions, around 1777, Christian literature obtained from Jesuits in China led educated Korean Christians to study. Although no Koreans were converted to Christianity by these books until the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the ideas of the Catholic priests espoused in them were debated and denounced as heterodox as early as 1724

When a Chinese priest managed to secretly enter the country a dozen years later, he found 4,000 Christians, none of whom had ever seen a pastor. The dynamic Christian communities were led almost entirely by educated laypeople from the aristocracy, as they were the only ones who could read the books that were written in Hanja.

The Christian community sent a delegation on foot to Beijing, 750 miles away, to ask the city's Bishop for bishops and priests. Eventually, two Chinese priests were sent, but their ministry was short-lived, and another forty years passed before the Paris Foreign Mission Society began its work in Korea with the arrival of Father Maubant in 1836. Paul Chong Hasang, Augustine Yu Chin-gil and Charles Cho Shin-chol had made several visits to Beijing in order to find ways of introducing missionaries into Korea. Since the persecution of 1801, there had been no priest to care for the Christian community. Serious dangers awaited the missionaries who dared to enter Korea. The bishops and priests who confronted this danger, as well as the lay Christians who aided and sheltered them, were in constant threat of losing their lives.

Bishop Laurent Imbert and ten other French missionaries were the first Paris Foreign Mission Society priests to enter Korea and to embrace a different culture. During the daytime, they kept in hiding, but at night they travelled about on foot attending to the spiritual needs of the faithful and administering the sacraments. The first Korean priest, Andrew Kim Taegon, succeeded in entering Korea as a missionary. However, thirteen months after his ordination he was put to death by the sword in 1846 at the age of 26.

Christians gathering in one place with no distinction on the basis of class were perceived to undermine 'hierarchical Confuciansim', the ideology which held the State together. The new learning was seen to be subversive of the establishment and this gave rise to systematic suppression and persecution. The suffering the believers endured is well known through official documents which detail trials and the sentences. There were four major persecutions – the last one in 1866, at which time there were only 20,000 Christians in Korea. 10,000 had died. Those figures give a sense of the enormous sacrifice of the early Korean Catholics. (Other Christian denominations did not enter Korea until sometime later). The vast majority of the martyrs were simple lay people, including men and women, married and single, old and young.

More than 10,000 martyrs died in persecutions which extended over more than one hundred years. Of all these martyrs, seventy-nine were beatified in 1925. They had died in the persecutions of 1839 (Ki-hae persecution), 1846 (Pyong-o persecution) and 1866 (Pyong-in persecution). In addition, twenty-four martyrs were beatified in 1968. All together, 103 martyrs were canonized by Pope John Paul II on May 6, 1984. In a break with tradition, the ceremony did not take place in Rome, but in Seoul. Their feast day is September 20. Currently, Korea has the 4th largest number of saints in the Catholic world.

The Martyrs of Korea - 20 September

The Collect

Almighty and Everlasting God, who didst enkindle the flame of thy love in the heart of thy holy martyrs of Korea.: Grant to us, thy humble servants, a like faith and power of love, that we who rejoice in their triumph may profit by their example; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Epistle - Peter 4:12-19

The Holy Gospel - St. Mark 8:34-38

Reference and Resources


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