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What might have been for the Korean Catholic Church

Two military incursions could have established a foothold for the faith much earlier

What might have been for the Korean Catholic Church

Toyotomi Hideyoshi. (Photo by Wikimedia Commons)

If major historical turning points are often the result of violent armed conflict, luck can also play a decisive role. While the first nucleus of Christians in Korea did not form until 1784, if fate had taken a different course the religion may have taken root more than 100 years earlier.

Indeed, it was two military events that could have opened the country to evangelization: first was the invasion by the Japanese army led by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1592, and second was the invasion by China’s Qing empire 40 years later.

Among the various military lords who formed the Japanese army was a Christian daimyo, Konishi Yukinaga. The son of a wealthy merchant, Yukinaga was baptized with the name of Augustine. His army established a stronghold in the province of Kyongsang (southeast of the Korean peninsula) and, in order to maintain morale, he requested the presence of Spanish Jesuit Gregorio de Céspedez and another brother, a Japanese named Eion Foucan.

They were the first Christians to officially set foot on the Korean peninsula, some 200 years before the arrival of the first priest. They led Masses and practiced confessions and baptisms among the soldiers, but there is no document of direct contact with the local population.

Such contact certainly happened with Korean prisoners of war, however. Thousands of these were deported to Japan as slaves at the end of the conflict, and many converted to Christianity.

There are no official sources on the exact number of new converts, but it is certain that some made it back to Korea. It is possible that they passed their faith to friends and family, but given the lack of books and priests, it is much more likely that any trace of their spiritual conversion slowly faded, and with their death totally disappeared.

Some 40 years after the end of the Japanese invasion, the Qing dynasty in 1637 took hostage Prince Sohyeon, heir to the throne of the kingdom of Joseon, and his younger brother Pongnim. The two princes spent nearly eight years in the Qing dynasty capital of Shenyang.

In 1644, when the Qing imperial court moved to Beijing, Sohyeon met the Jesuit missionaries who had resided there for nearly half a century. He formed a special relationship with the German Jesuit Johann Adam Schall von Bell, head of the Beijing Astronomical Observatory. Through this friendship, he became curious about Catholicism and Western culture.

After 70 days, the prince returned to Korea, accompanied by five eunuchs and a court lady. He requested a missionary to join him, too, but none were available.

He did, however, receive from his Jesuit friend texts on Catholic doctrine, texts on calendrical calculations, various scientific tools and sacred images.

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He did not have time to share this new knowledge though, as he died suddenly shortly after his return to the Korean capital. He was found dead in the bedroom of his father, King Injo, bleeding severely from the head.

Some legends have it that the King murdered his son with an ink well that the prince had brought back from China. Other historians note that the body was covered with black spots, suggesting he was poisoned. Historians do seem to agree on one point: that Injo and his associates condemned Sohyeon’s conduct as too friendly towards the hated Qing.

Many, including Sohyeon’s wife, sought to shed light on Sohyeon’s death, but Injo ordered the body to be immediately buried. The tomb is now in the province of Goyang, north of Seoul.

The court lady and the eunuchs were sent back to China; also, the presents the prince had received from the German Jesuit were burned or thrown into the sea along with his other belongings, in respect to an old shamanistic custom regarding death caused by 'evil spirits'.

So for the second time in less than 30 years, fate and circumstance kept Christianity’s message from the people of the Korean peninsula. More than a century would pass before a Confucian scholar named Yi Seung-hun traveled to Beijing, to be baptized with the name of Peter – the first baptism of a Korean citizen.

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