Catholics of Seoul, South Korea, have been in the firing line for most of their 230-year history, and they may be there again shortly, given the high tension between North Korea and the United States. It is an appropriate moment for the first Korean exhibition in the Vatican, organized by the Seoul archdiocese, the Seoul Historical Museum and the Vatican Museums.
It provides insights into the whole Korean Catholic Church, which is one of the most dynamic in the world with more than 5 million faithful (10 percent of the population) and 5,000 priests, of whom 1,045 are missionaries. In recent decades it has grown at an impetuous rate: In 1960 there were only 250 Korean priests.
One panel in the exhibition refers to it as a “self-generating” Church. Unlike many other countries, where missionaries arrived with the colonial powers, Koreans found their own way to the Church. In 1784 a Korean scholar in the Chinese capital, Beijing, became interested in Catholicism and was baptized. On his return to Korea, he baptized others who then did likewise.
The exposition recounts that it was a time when part of the Confucian establishment in Korea sought a new vision and new knowledge. They found it in books that introduced them to Western science — for instance, telescopes and maps that did not have China as the center of the world — but also to Catholicism.
Conversions followed, but it was a decade before the first priest arrived. He came from Beijing. The more conservative establishment figures felt the social stratification they supported was challenged by the new beliefs, which insisted all had equal dignity. Persecution began, resulting in an estimated 10,000 martyrs in a century. Threatened Catholics buried their rosaries and catechetical books, then fled to hide in “believers’ villages” in the mountains. The first Korean priest, Kim Dae-geon (also known as St. Andrew Kim), was martyred in 1846, a year after his ordination.
Pope St. John Paul II canonized 103 martyrs during his visit to Seoul in 1984, and Pope Francis beatified another 124 when he went there in 2014. The exhibition has photographs of an execution site surmounted by a large screen, where one sees various methods of execution — including thrusting a sword into the back of a martyr.
Only 20 years after Catholics were tolerated, the Japanese began their occupation of Korea, in 1910. Once again, Catholics knew hardships until the Japanese were defeated in 1945. A panel underlines that, at this time, several martyrs were also patriots fighting the Japanese. For them the Faith and the fatherland coalesced.
The next trials began in 1950 with the Korean War, which isolated Catholics in North Korea — since the armistice, part of the Seoul archdiocese has been beyond the truce line. North Korea has established a “stooge” patriotic Catholic Church, but the archbishop of Seoul, Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung, affirms that there are still faithful Catholics in the North. The Seoul archdiocese is very conscious of its severed section, where more than 50,000 Catholics resided before the Communist takeover. As well as aiding the poor of Seoul, it has generously provided medicine, food and other aid to its brethren separated by a frontier. It also fosters reconciliation and reunification through a One Body, One Spirit movement and its own TV, radio and newspaper.
Postwar American aid, including that from Catholic Relief Services, helped trigger the boom of recent years, which has made South Korea one of the four Asian Tigers, or most highly developed economies in that region of the world.
However, during the 1980s a military dictatorship brutally repressed all opposition. A big panel in the exhibition is dedicated to the reaction of the Church in favor of human rights. It reproduces the words of then-archbishop of Seoul, Cardinal Stephen Kim, who fended off the forces threatening protesting students by saying to reach them “you will have to step over my body, then the bodies of my priests, and then those of the nuns.”
There are large exhibition photos of the Myeongdong Cathedral of Seoul, which became the focal point of resistance to the violent regime. Some Koreans claim that the recent blossoming of the Church has more to do with its continuing championing of human rights than with the martyrs of the earlier persecutions. Polls show that the Catholic Church is the most trusted institution in a country where Christians are the largest religious group (18 percent of Koreans are Protestant).
Flourishing present and hope for the future
Some from other Asian countries come to Korea for their seminary training. Korean Catholics, mainly well-educated and well-paid (there are five Catholic universities and eight Catholic hospitals), support their missionaries active in five continents. There are 483 of them in Asia, 95 of which are in China; 202 in South America; 141 in Africa; 137 in Europe; 86 in Central and North America, 42 of which are in the United States; and 33 in Australia and the Pacific islands.
Further evidence of the outreach of the Korean Church were the 48 students from 15 Asian countries who came to Rome for the exhibition, which was accompanied by other events signaling the Korean Church making itself known: a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, accompanied by a Korean choir and their traditional music, and another Mass in the Roman church of Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung — all cardinals are assigned a church in Rome. His church is St. Crisogono, built above one of the house churches of the first Christians in Rome, which is appropriate, as the first “priestless” Catholics in Korea met in each others’ houses to pray.
What has been the effect of the heightened tension between North Korea and the United States? Father Mattias Hur Young-yup, a Korean priest and communications director of the Seoul archdiocese, told Our Sunday Visitor, “We continue praying for peace, opposing nuclear weapons and hoping for reconciliation and the unity of our severed land.”
Earlier this year the South Korean president was ousted after charges of corruption and cronyism. On the Church’s view, Father Hur said, “The Church still insists on the need for legality, as it did when the military regime tried to squash protestors.”
Until recently there was a Korean Jesuit teacher in Rome who said that the Catholic Church in Korea had seen remarkable growth but that its future was uncertain, as the number attending Mass each Sunday was declining and the Church had lost some of its vigor as a result of greater prosperity, but also great inequalities.
“There’s some truth in that, but we are still dedicated to social justice and not complacent about our rapid growth,” Father Hur said. “We’re not satisfied just with statistics but are concentrating on the quality of our faithful.”
Desmond O’Grady writes from Rome.