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Korean musical pays tribute to Catholic independence hero

'Confessions of Ahn Jung-geun' tells the story of a Catholic patriot hailed for his struggles for Korea’s independence
A scene from the movie 'Hero' on life of Korean Catholic patriot Ahn Jung-geun

A scene from the movie 'Hero' on life of Korean Catholic patriot Ahn Jung-geun. (Photo: CJENM/Catholic Times)

Published: September 29, 2023 11:18 AM GMT
Updated: September 29, 2023 11:28 AM GMT

A South Korean Catholic theater association is all set to release a musical drama nationwide on the life of Thomas Ahn Jung-geun, a Catholic patriot hailed for his struggles for Korea’s independence from Japanese colonial rule.

The play “Confessions of Ahn Jung-geun” looks at his life through the eyes of Father Joseph Wilhelm, a French missionary from the Paris Foreign Mission Society (MEP) who baptized him, Catholic Peace Broadcasting Corporation (CPBC) reported on Sept. 28.

Sponsored by the Seoul Catholic Theater Association, the play seeks to help the viewers look at Ahn from Wilhelm’s viewpoint wherein the deep conflict, trouble, and agony faced by the latter is shown in Ahn’s fate, said the musical’s director, Min Bok-ki.

"There is meaning in seeing the confession of Ahn Jung-geun to Father Wilhelm about his life,” Min said.

Father Wilhelm who was proficient in Korean had helped Ahn to understand the world around Korea at that time.

The musical is divided into 14 scenes representing the 14 Stations of the Cross. Fourteen actors of different ages and genders play the role of Ahn in each scene.

The performance is scheduled to start at the National Theater in Seoul next month and continue to be staged at various locations in Busan, Ulsan, Daegu, and Andong.

Ahn Jung-geun (1879-1910) was born in a Buddhist family in Hwanghae province, now part of North Korea. He was the eldest of three sons and one daughter of his parents.

He converted to Catholicism in 1897, and took Thomas as his baptismal name, church records say.

He got married and fathered three children and became a collaborator of foreign Catholic missionaries at a time when Christianity was spreading in the Buddhist-majority country despite brutal persecution by rulers of Korea’s long-reigning Joseon dynasty.

He secured funds to establish two schools and served as the principal.

Ahn was angered by Japan’s colonial oppression of Korea following the end of Joseon rule, historic records say.

He joined the anti-Japanese independence movement and then moved to Russia where he received military training.

On Oct. 26, 1909, Ahn shot dead Hirobumi Ito, the four-time prime minister of Japan and first resident chief colonial official of Korea, in Harbin, northeast China.  

He was arrested and imprisoned. Japanese forces executed him on March 26, 1910, at Lushun prison in China.

For years, Ahn has been hailed as a patriot and national hero in Korea, featuring in popular culture, literature, dramas, films and research.

However, for decades Catholic Church denounced him as a murderer and sinner for his killing of the Japanese official.

French MEP missionary Bishop Gustave Mutel, the former apostolic vicar of Korea (1890-1933), even refused Catholic sacraments for Ahn in defiance.

Mutel denied permission to Father Wilhelm to meet Ahn in prison as he requested, according to an article published by the Korea Times in 2019.

Wilhlem, however, visited Ahn, heard his confession, and gave him Holy Communion.

Bishop Mutel punished Wilhelm for disobedience. He appealed to the Vatican against the disciplinary action and was vindicated.

Before death Ahn wrote a series of letters to family members, Mutel, and Wilhelm, asking for them to pray for him.

The Church’s stance on Ahn started changing in the 1990s.

In 1993, Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan (1922-2009), then archbishop of Seoul, celebrated a memorial Mass on his death anniversary to pay tribute to him.

“Ahn acted in righteous defense of the nation. The Catholic Church does not regard killing committed to defending the nation from unjust aggression as a crime,” said Cardinal Kim.

In 2011, Seoul Archdiocese’s preparatory committee for beatification and canonization held a symposium to discuss the possibilities of canonization for Ahn. 

A museum in memory of Ahn has been set up in the South Korean capital Seoul.

In 2014, China opened the Ahn Jung-geun Memorial Hall in the northern city of Harbin to pay tribute to him, triggering a protest from the Japanese government as Ahn is considered a terrorist in Japan.

The Catholic University of Daegu in South Korea established an institute dedicated to academic research on the life and works of Ahn. It also installed a life-size statue of Ahn near the central library of the campus.

Franklin Rausch, an American assistant professor of history and philosophy, wrote in 2019 that Ahn Jung-geun’s Catholic faith played an important role in his life and led him to fight injustice. 

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