Pope Francis' journey East

In late August 1845, Korea’s first priest, Father Andrew Kim Taegon, newly ordained at age 25, made a perilous journey by land and sea from Shanghai back to his native Korea, where he hoped to evangelize his countrymen

Apart from the dangers of the journey, the ruling Joseon Dynasty had suppressed the practice and spread of Christianity, which had been growing in Korea through study among lay people for around 60 years, even though few priests had ever reached them.

In June 1846, Father Kim was arrested, sent to prison in Seoul and sentenced to be beheaded later that year. As he awaited martyrdom in prison along with 20 companions, he wrote:

“Since the Catholic Church was introduced into Korea 50 or 60 years ago, our people have suffered many severe persecutions ... How agonizing it is for us to suffer as one body and how humanly sad it is for us to part! However as the Holy Bible says, Our Lord even takes care of the hair on our heads, aren’t these persecutions according to his providence? ... In this difficult time, to be victorious, we must be steadfast using all of our strength and capabilities like brave soldiers fully armed in the battlefield. After we die, please, take care of the bereaved families ... We will soon go out to the battlefield. Be steadfast, and let us meet in heaven ... So do not grieve but practice greater charity and serve the Lord so that we may meet again in God’s eternal mansion.”

Father Kim was beheaded along with his companions, beatified in 1925 and canonized by Pope St. John Paul II during his visit to Korea in 1984. He is now remembered among the thousands of celebrated martyrs of Korea.

During his visit to South Korea Aug. 14-18, Pope Francis will focus on two goals: to reach out to the youth of Asia through the sixth Asian Youth Day and sending them to evangelize the continent’s youth; and to lift up the examples of faith, love and sacrifice given by St. Andrew Kim and thousands of others through the beatification of 124 Korean martyrs.

These two goals come together in the chosen theme for the event: “Arise Youth! Wake Up! The Glory of the Martyrs Shines on You!”

Korean martyrs
A painting depicts 103 Korean martyrs canonized in 1984. CNS photo

Church’s history

The Catholic Church in South Korea is unique in several respects. It is a country in which Christianity was first introduced not by foreign missionaries, but by Koreans who encountered the Christian faith in China.

South Korea

In 1603, Yi Gwang-jeong, a diplomat who acquired the works of Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci in China, brought the texts back to Korea and disseminated them. Almost 200 years later, in 1784, Yi Sung-hun, another diplomat who had studied Christianity and been baptized in Beijing, founded the first Catholic house of prayer in Seoul and later established a group of lay leaders.

Although Catholic teachings had been officially denounced by the government as heterodox by 1724, the Catholic faith spread through study among lay people for years, and when the first priest entered the country secretly in the late 1700s, he found 4,000 Catholics who had never met a priest. They sent a delegation to Beijing to request missionary priests to be sent, but because of the danger, only a few (Chinese) priests traveled to Korea during the next 40 years. Because of its indigenous introduction into Korea, Christianity is thought by many to have grown faster than if it had been brought in by foreigners.

As in other East Asian countries, Korean Catholics suffered fierce, repeated waves of persecution throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The Joseon Dynasty, which reigned for five centuries (1392-1897), saw Christianity as a subversive influence, incompatible with Korean traditions, particularly because of the Church’s refusal to engage in traditional Confucian ancestor veneration rites. The dynastic government harshly suppressed the Church several times, including one wave — the Catholic Persecution of 1866 — in which more than 8,000 Catholics (among them nine French missionaries) were killed throughout the country. Thus, the Church in Korea boasts an unusually large number of martyrs — more than 10,000 just in a 100-year period.

During the 20th century, several of these groups were beatified, culminating in the canonization of 103 martyrs in 1984. In his canonization homily, Pope John Paul II praised the sacrifices of Korean martyrs.

“The death of these martyrs became the leaven of the Church and led to today’s splendid flowering of the Church in Korea,” he said. “Even today their undying spirit sustains the Christians in the Church of silence in the north of this tragically divided land.”

‘Models of holiness’

Built upon such a strong legacy of sacrifice on the part of its early generations of Catholics (and the growth in the Church in Korea they have inspired), it is natural that the Asian Youth Day celebration will focus on them, holding them up as models for young Catholics.

Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung, Archbishop of Seoul, himself a descendent of two martyrs — Peter Yeom Seok-tae and Kim Maria — said that the martyrs are “great models of holiness who crossed the barriers of social status and loved their neighbors ... [playing] an important role in the history of the entire Korean nation. Following the example of these martyrs, we are called to embrace and cherish each other in order to make the world a better place, more just and more fraternal.”

Cardinal Yeom’s remarks came after the Vatican announced in February that Pope Francis will beatify 124 Korean martyrs this month. He also noted that the vast majority of the martyrs were lay Catholics: “workers, butchers, shopkeepers, housewives, servants. This shows that the Korean Church is a creative church where every believer is responsible for witness and proclamation.”

Father John the Baptist Kwang Chol Hong, pastor of St. Andrew Kim Korean Catholic Church in Seattle, told Our Sunday Visitor that Catholics in Korea today follow this example, living an “enthusiastic religious life in the tradition of the faithfulness of the martyrs,” marked by “sacrificial service and reverence toward pastors and the clergy in the fullness of vocation, as well as acts of charity.”

The martyrs to be beatified by Pope Francis on Aug. 16 are Paul Yun Ji-chung and 123 companions, martyred during the 1800s. The beatification Mass will take place at the Gwanghwamun (“the Gates of Light”) in Seoul, near the ancient imperial place known as a symbol of Korean identity, which is also near the place where the imprisonments and beheadings of some martyrs occurred.

Prior to the Mass, the pope is scheduled to visit the Seosomun Martyrs’ Shrine in Seoul, a revered site for Korean Catholics.

anniversary ceremony
A June 24 ceremony in Seoul celebrates the 235th founding anniversary of the Catholic church in Korea. Newscom

Pope’s visit

Father Hong notes the importance of Pope Francis’ visit for all people in Korea.

“As with all other Catholics in the world, especially for Korean Catholics on this extraordinary occasion, meeting in person and celebrating the Mass with the pope will be an enormous joy as well as a great honor,” he said, adding that the pope enjoys an even wider appeal.

“Catholic or not, all Koreans seem to be in such a frame of mind. Korea is now overflowing with signs welcoming Pope Francis, which I think provides a significant occasion in which a positive image of the Catholic Church is being enhanced.”

Pope Francis is scheduled to be welcomed by South Korean president Park Geun-hye, as well as representatives of Protestant, Confucian, Buddhist and other communities who have come together under the leadership of Catholic bishop Msgr. Lazzaro You Heung-sik to form the Conference of Religious for Peace. Planned stops include a visit to Solmoe Shrine at St. Andrew Kim’s birthplace, meetings with seminarians and religious communities, and a closing Mass for Asian Youth Day at Haemi Castle.

Asian Youth Day is expected to bring together thousands of young people from 22 Asian nations. Youth from North Korea have been invited as well, and organizers hope they will be allowed to attend. Bishop You, of the Diocese of Daejeon, which will host Asian Youth Day, holds great hopes for the event.

“I truly believe that the young people of Asia, by participating in the Youth Day in our diocese which is rich in the spirit of the martyrs, will receive the same spirit, to counter all worldliness and selfishness with an authentic life of faith, and to be reborn again as courageous heralds of the Gospel,” he wrote in a March letter to the faithful of the diocese.

Prayers for unification

In South Korea, a group of pop stars has created a song and video in honor of Pope Francis’ visit, called “Koinonia,” the Greek word for friendship and communion.

“The song carries our hope that the pope’s visit will bring joy to all of Korea, beyond religious differences,” actor Ahn Sung-ki, who helped organize the song’s production, told the website AsiaNews.

Cardinal Yeom hopes that Pope Francis’ visit might produce a “miracle,” that of opening up a path for reconciliation between North and South Korea, which have been separated since World War II. “I hope that the pope may invite the two leaders for a common gesture of prayer or a meeting,” he said in an interview with AsiaNews. “But it would be a true miracle. In the cathedral each week ... we celebrate a Mass for reconciliation. Koreans in the north and south share the same language and culture. Even if we have lived under different ideologies, we should overcome our divisions and be reconciled with each other.”

Cardinal Yeom, who also is the apostolic administrator for North Korea, which has no active priests even though the government built a Catholic cathedral in Pyongyang in 1988, said there are about 3,000 Catholics in the North Korean capital. He has not yet been allowed to visit them.

From the anticipation among Korea’s Catholics and non-Catholics of having a personal encounter with Pope Francis — and the urgency with which the Church in South Korea works and prays for a reunification between the two countries — to the tragic stories told by defectors from the north, one can feel the great hopes held by so many people for this historic event.

John Lindblom studies in the World Religions and World Church doctoral program at the University of Notre Dame.

Pope's Schedule
Wednesday, Aug. 13