During early days of Catholicism in Korea in the 19th century, thousands of Catholics embraced martyrdom for faith due to brutal persecution unleashed by staunch-Buddhist Joseon dynasty. Andrew Kim Tae-gon, the first native Korean priest, is among the most famous martyrs.
Andrew Kim Taegon was born on Aug. 21, 1821, in a family of Christian converts, in Solmoe area of Daejeon in central part of today’s South Korea. He was baptized at the age of 15.
Following his conversion, he had stayed in the Philippines for a brief period, and then traveled to Macau in China to study in a seminary. He returned to Korea six years later through China’s Manchuria region. He then crossed the Yellow Sea and reached Shanghai, where he was ordained a priest by the French Bishop Jean-Joseph-Jean-Baptiste Ferréol, in 1844
Back in Korea he started evangelizing during the early period of Christianity in the Buddhist-majority nation. He supported foreign missionaries to enter Korea through a naval route by evading border patrols. Such acts were considered serious criminal offenses as the rulers of Joseon dynasty viewed Christianity as an alien, subversive faith that defies Buddhism strongly influenced by Confucian ethics.
Andrew Kim was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured. He was condemned to death for refusing to recant his faith. He was beheaded on Sept. 16, 1846, at the Han River near Seoul.
Bishop Ferreol, the first bishop of Korea who ordained Kim, died from exhaustion on Feb. 3, 1853. Before his death he wanted to be buried beside Kim, stating, "You will never know how sad I was to lose this young native priest. I have loved him as a father loved his son; it is a consolation for me to think of his eternal happiness."
Andrew’s father, Ignatius Kim, was martyred during the persecution of 1839. Paul Chong Hasang, a lay apostle and married man, was 45 when he died.
In 1984, during his visit to South Korea, Pope John Paul II canonized 103 martyrs including Andrew Kim, Kim's father Ignatius, Paul Chong and seven French missionaries who had been martyred in the 19th century.
Paul Chong Hasang was born in a noble family in 1795. He was a layman but hailed as a pillar of early Church in Korea for his seminal efforts in evangelization in collaboration with Catholic missionaries.
Paul’s family has borne several martyrs – his father, mother, sister and elder brother – all who shed their blood for faith. His father, Augustine Chong Yak-jong, was a Catholic intellectual who had written the first Catholic catechism in the Korean language, “The Importance of the Doctrines in Catholicism.”
He was martyred on April 8, 1801, becoming the first writer martyr of Korean Catholic Church. His family was persecuted and stripped of all property. In spite of this hardship and tragedy, Paul's mother was strong, and the family never denied the faith.
In 1825, Paul Chong wrote a letter to the pope to send more missionaries to Korea. He helped many missionaries from China to enter Korea and during that period he visited Beijing nine times to escort foreign missionaries. He welcomed French MEP Bishop Laurent Imbert, who pioneered Catholicism in Singapore, in his own house. Bishop Imbert was martyred in 1839.
Paul Chong Hasang was arrested in 1839. In prison, he wrote a letter to the Prime Minister in Korean language defending Catholic faith to the government. He was beheaded on Sept. 22, 1839, in Seoul.
The canonization of 103 martyrs in Soeul during the bicentennial celebrations of the Catholicism in Korea constitute the largest number of saints created on a single occasion. It was also the first canonization outside Rome since Pope Urban V declared Elzeario de Sabran a saint at Avignon, France on 15 April 1369.
About 600,000 people attended the canonization ceremony when Pope John Paul II paid rich tributes to the martyrs.
“The Korean Martyrs have borne witness to the crucified and risen Christ. Through the sacrifice of their own lives, they have become like Christ in a very special way”, the pope said.
The canonization effectively made South Korea the fourth country with the largest number of saints in the Catholic Church.
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