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Faith and coffee inspire pilgrims at Korean Catholic shrine

Visitors to Yeonpung Shrine pay tributes to Catholic martyrs, make donations and enjoy free drinks and snacks

Faith and coffee inspire pilgrims at Korean Catholic shrine

A pilgrim makes a donation while visiting Yeonpung Martyrs' Shrine in Cheongju. (Photo: Catholic Times of Korea)

On a sweltering hot summer day in mid-July, an elderly Catholic couple visited Yeonpung Martyrs' Shrine.

Tired from their travels from Ilsan city to Goesan as pilgrims to the popular Catholic shrine covered by Cheongju Diocese, they looked for a place to rest and have something to eat and drink.

Yeonpung Martyrs' Shrine is one of two major shrines in Cheongju that behold the memory of 19th century Catholic martyrs who were killed during Christian persecution in Korea during the rule of the Joseon dynasty. The other popular shrine is Baithi Martyrs' Shrine.

A volunteer led the couple to a coffee shop at the shrine where they could relax and enjoy coffee, snacks and a view of the holy site.

However, they were surprised to find the menu card in the coffee shop had no price list.

The volunteer explained that the café follows the teaching of Jesus: “Freely you have received, freely give.” (Matt. 10:8)

If you want, you can give coffee and drinks to others for free, but if you don't want to, you don't have to offer it

“You can't buy coffee and drinks with your own money here. This is what the pilgrims who came in the past have done and they donate for others. If you want, you can give coffee and drinks to others for free, but if you don't want to, you don't have to offer it,” said the volunteer, reported the Catholic Times of Korea.

The resting place, coffee and snacks are free for all pilgrims coming to the shrine. However, donation boxes in the corner of the café allow pilgrims to donate for the next pilgrim and to the shrine voluntarily. And the elderly couple did make donations.

Like the couple, all pilgrims are welcome to donate as little as 10,000 won (US$8.64) or as much as 100,000 won ($86.42), according to the Catholic Times.

Every month shrine authorities use a portion of the donations for the shrine and religious organizations that need some help.

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Caffe sospeso (suspended coffee) is a popular tradition rooted in Naples, Italy. It is a cup of coffee paid for in advance as an anonymous act of generosity and solidarity. The tradition began in the working-class cafés of Naples where someone would order a sospeso, paying the price of two coffees but receiving and consuming only one. A poor person enquiring later whether there was a sospeso available would then be served a coffee for free.

Father Kwon Sang-woo, who is in charge of Yeonpung Martyrs' Shrine, said the coffee initiative aims to remind people that “God’s love and salvation are free gifts given to us.”

The priest took charge of the shrine last year and made arrangements for a relaxation place for pilgrims.

The shrine was closed for months due to Covid-19 restrictions and reopened to the public in May. The dining area of the coffee shop has been renovated during the pandemic and can now offer a resting place for pilgrims.

The shrine has a large cross that honors martyred Catholics who embraced death for their faith and the tombs of six martyrs. It also has the stations of the Way of the Cross where pilgrims can pray.

Father Kwon noted that though the number of group pilgrims has decreased due to the pandemic, individuals continue to visit the shrine and pray in its quiet environment

At the pilgrimage center, pilgrims can look to the holy site and enjoy the beautiful mountain that prominent theologian and local missionary priest Father Thomas Choe Yang-eop crossed to visit church members.

Father Choe (1821-61) is dubbed “St. Paul of Korea” for traveling thousands of kilometers to visit villages, comfort persecuted Christians and evangelizing. He is credited with baptizing thousands of Catholics. In 2016, Pope Francis declared him “venerable” for his life of heroic virtue, which is the second of the three-stage process of sainthood in the Catholic Church.

Father Kwon noted that though the number of group pilgrims has decreased due to the pandemic, individuals continue to visit the shrine and pray in its quiet environment.

About 56 percent of an estimated 51.8 South Koreans have no religion, 20 percent are Protestant, 8 percent are Catholic and 15.5 percent are Buddhist, according to official government records.

Church officials say about 5.6 million Catholics are spread across three archdioceses, 14 dioceses and a military ordinariate.

This article uses material from the Catholic Times of Korea

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