The remains of the first Catholics martyrs from Korea have been recovered over two centuries after they were executed.
Catholicism was brought to Korea in the 17th century by lay Koreans who had encountered the faith in their travels to China and Japan. It became well-established on the Korean peninsula by the 18th century. As the faith began to spread, Catholics faced persecution under the Joseon dynasty, which ruled for over 500 years.
Over the course of 100 years, as many as 10,000 Catholics were martyred in Korea. It wasn’t until 1886 that the persecution of Catholics ended with a signing of a treaty with France.
Seven years ago, in 2014, Pope Francis traveled to South Korea to beatify 125 Catholic martyrs. The three martyrs whose remains were found were among those beatified. In a testament to the strength of faith in spite of adversity, it is estimated that 800,000 people attended the beatification Mass.
The remains were discovered in March in the course of converting a grave into a sanctuary near Jeonju, south of Seoul. An investigation using historical records and DNA testing led researchers to determine that the remains belonged to Paul Yun Ji-chung, 32, and James Kwon Sang-yeon, 40, who were beheaded in 1791, reported AFP.
The remains of Yun’s younger brother Francis Yun Ji-heon, who was martyred by quartering at age 37, ten years after his brother was executed, were also discovered.
“We have found the remains of those who first set the history of martyrdom for our church, which was founded on the blood of the martyrs,” said Bishop John Kim Son-tae, head of the Jeonju Diocese, as reported by AFP.
Francis Yun’s remains, “show clear signs of dismemberment,” said the diocese.
According to the bishop, historical records show that Paul Yun maintained his faith until his death.
He was “smiling as if he was on his way to a party” as he was dragged to the execution site, the bishop told AFP.
“He was beheaded calling out ‘Jesus, Maria’,” he said.
As of 2019, there are 5.6 million Catholics in South Korea, making up 11% of the population.