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The Korean Martyrs and the Power of Lay Witness

Korean Catholics JEON HAN Republic of Korea

JEON HAN Republic of Korea

Marge Fenelon - published on 08/20/14

The throngs who greeted Pope Francis in Korea are testimony to the power of the laity to spread the Faith.

During Mass on August 16 at Seoul’s iconic Gwanghwamun Gate, Pope Francis beatified 124 Korean martyrs. About 800,000 people were in attendance, according to the Vatican. That’s an impressive number in and of itself; it’s even more so, considering Catholics make up only 10 per cent of Korea’s population of 50 million.

What impressed me the most, however, is how the Catholic faith was brought to Korea: the missionaries were not members of the clergy. They were Korean laymen.  

This fact was mentioned as an aside in a TV presentation the other day. For me, it was not a point of trivia to fill air time. It was a wake-up call. Until that moment, I’d assumed that Korea, like most of the rest of the East, had been evangelized by religious sent by their orders into mission territory. Well, I’d assumed incorrectly.

The Catholic faith was brought to Korea in the seventeenth century by members of the Korean nobility who’d come in contact with Catholicism during their travels to China and Japan. By the 17th century, the faith had taken root in both of those countries. Based on what they’d observed and learned from books about Catholicism written in Chinese, they tried to practice Catholicism themselves on their return home. One of them, Yi Seung-hun, was baptized in Beijing and returned to Korea in 1784 to found a Christian community. This event marked the establishment of the Catholic Church in Korea.

We know from the hundreds of Korean martyrs that Catholicism didn’t have it easy in Korea. Those in government, influenced by the Neo-Confucianism ideology, opposed the faith. The Catholic belief that all human beings possess equal dignity was seen as a threat to the social hierarchical system then in place. In addition, it was considered a crime to have contact with foreigners. This law meant that communications between Korean Catholics and the Vicar Apostolic of Beijing constituted a crime.  

The rest, as they say, is history. It’s estimated that about 10,000 Catholics were martyred in a persecution that lasted for more than 100 years when, in 1895, freedom of religion was officially recognized in Korea.

Fast forward to the Papal Mass earlier this week with 800,000 people in attendance. And consider, too, the over 50,000 young people from 23 Asian countries who gathered in the Castle of Haemi for the concluding Mass of the sixth Asian Youth Day. Think about the outstandingly warm welcome Pope Francis received upon his arrival in Korea and at every stop throughout his visit.

All of this was made possible thanks to a handful of Koreans who long ago were curious about, and then fell in love with, the Catholic Faith.

The Holy Father summed it all up quite nicely in his homily during the Mass in which he beatified Paul Yun Ji-chung and his 123 companions:

“The victory of the martyrs, their witness to the power of God’s love, continues to bear fruit today in Korea, in the Church which received growth from their sacrifice. Our celebration of Blessed Paul and Companions provides us with the opportunity to return to the first moments, the infancy as it were, of the Church in Korea. It invites you, the Catholics of Korea, to remember the great things which God has wrought in this land and to treasure the legacy of faith and charity entrusted to you by your forebears.”

The story of Catholicism in Korea is testimony to the power of the laity to spread the faith and influence the world around them. They also serve as exemplars of the way laity and clergy can and should work together. Yi Seung-hun and his contemporaries had a choice. They could have founded their own sect – an offshoot of Catholicism minus the “troublesome” teachings that earned them punishment, persecution and death at the hands of the Korean government. Look at all the sects of Christianity today whose founders adopted some aspects of Catholicism and rejected others. Instead, the Korean martyrs risked their lives to work under the guidance of, and in cooperation with, the Catholic hierarchy, to bring the one, true, Catholic and apostolic Church to their native land.

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CatholicismKoreaPope Francis
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