The Catholic Church in Korea: born of persecution and perseverance
Untold thousands suffered through the centuries to bring the Gospel to the country
Saint Andrew Kim Taegon, Korea's first Catholic priest and martyr.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Pope Francis has chosen Korea for his first pastoral visit in Asia. It is an acknowledgement of the exceptional qualities of courage and fortitude displayed by the country’s Catholics throughout history.
What makes the Korean church unique, not only in Asia but in the whole world, is that its evangelization was started not by missionaries but by ordinary men. Years before the arrival of missionaries, a group of Korean intellectuals discovered a foreign religion across the border in China, and began to propagate its precepts in their own country.
The first Jesuits had arrived in China as early as the late 16th century. Among them, the best known is Matteo Ricci. He was one of the first to translate into Chinese not only the texts of catechism but also many works of science and literature. These hundreds of translated works attracted many people to the religion of these Western missionaries. By 1608, there were 300 Christians in Beijing, and 2,000 throughout the kingdom.
In 1603, these texts were also introduced to Korea thanks to Yi Gwang-jeong, a Korean diplomat in Beijing. He was the first to import this new knowledge to the homogeneous Confucian society of Joseon.
What happened then in Korea resembles what had already occurred in China: Catholicism started to intrigue scholars. Soon the existence of God and the concepts of the immortal soul and divine providence became the subject of discussion in literary circles.
Still it was not until 1784 that Catholicism ceased to be an academic subject and became a religious reality in all respects. Yi Seung-hun Peter was the first Korean to be baptized. He had to cross the border to Beijing to receive the sacrament, from the French Jesuit Jean-Joseph de Grammont. Unlike China and Japan, in Korea there were still no priests.
Like sheep without a shepherd, the first Korean Catholic communities had few chances to cement their union. Yet they were able to find the strength to remain united and even thrive. The first Korean believers met in the homes of scholars Ly Beyok and Kim Beom-u, whose house stood where the cathedral of Myeongdong in Seoul now stands.
Just as the little community was beginning to flourish, with the contribution of many young believers, the first persecutions struck. Almost half of the 230-year history of the Korean church is marked by discrimination and martyrdom. Believers were hunted down, forced to renounce their faith and eventually killed.
The persecution was in part sparked by the decision of some believers to renounce the common Confucian practice of ancestor worship. This ritual is deeply rooted within Korean society, and symbolizes one’s filial piety, the most cherished value in a Confucian society.
Another factor was that for the Christians, God would always come first, before even the king. This attitude in itself would be labeled as an act of treason in the old Joseon dynasty. In fact Christians were indeed persecuted for committing acts of treason.
In the 19th century, Catholics further imperiled themselves and consequently bolstered the charges of treason when they turned to foreign powers, with whom they hoped to establish trade links and thereby encourage greater religious freedom in the country.
Despite the persecution that threatened and eliminated the founders of the first group of Christians, and despite the hostility and the contempt of the whole society, the few remaining believers were able to hold onto their faith.
They took refuge in the most remote areas of the countryside, where they found communities among which they could spread the precepts of the Gospel. In times of crisis, they found a way to successfully pass down the doctrine to later generations.
During Pope Francis’ visit to Korea, 124 people will be beatified during a special Mass in Daejeon. They are but a fraction of the many who suffered through the centuries against discrimination and persecution to secure a foothold for Catholicism in the country.
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