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Korean saint finds his place in St. Peter’s Basilica (with pictures)

mass in St. Peter's Basilica on the occasion of the unveiling of the statue of St. Andrew Kim Tae-gon, the first Korean-born Catholic priest

Antoine Mekary | ALETEIA

Camille Dalmas - published on 09/17/23

St. Andrew Kim now stands in the north façade of the basilica, at the foot of the Sistine Chapel. "This is the first saint to represent a national Catholic community"

A statue of St. Andrew Kim, Korea’s first priest and martyr, was unveiled with great fanfare on Saturday, September 16, 2023, in a niche on the outer wall of St. Peter’s Basilica. The placement is a sign of the importance of this small Asian country within the Catholic Church.

South Korea has been in the spotlight since Pope Francis announced this summer that the next World Youth Day will be held in Seoul in 2017.

It was once again in the spotlight this Saturday at the Vatican. A delegation of 300 Korean Catholics – bishops, priests and laity – was led by Cardinal Lazarus You Heung-sik, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Clergy, and by Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung, Archbishop Emeritus of Seoul, for the unveiling of a statue of Saint André Kim Taegon.

Father-son saints

Born in Korea in 1821, Andrew Kim was one of the first Koreans to convert to Catholicism: He and his entire family were baptized by a priest of the French missions. But the Joseon dynasty in power in Korea at the time refused the arrival of Christians and began to persecute them: Andrew’s father, Saint Ignatius Kim, was martyred in 1839.

But Andrew was not discouraged: He went to Macao to enter the seminary, where he was ordained a priest in 1845 by the first bishop of Seoul, the Frenchman Jean-Joseph Ferréol. Aware of the risks involved, he returned to Korea in 1846, where he was arrested. Refusing to apostasize, he was tortured and beheaded. John Paul II canonized him along with 102 other Korean martyrs in 1984.

For Cardinal You, a rising figure in the Roman Curia, the unveiling of this statue has an important significance: He himself was greatly inspired by this young saint who came from the same region as he did. “Andrew tells us that a life spent in love, even if it costs sacrifices, comes back to you in abundance, fills you with joy, opens the way to good relationships and initiates you into true joy, which never fades,” he says.

Send your priests on mission!

The members of the Korean delegation were received in audience by Pope Francis in the morning; the Pope recently dedicated an entire general audience to Saint Andrew Kim.

The Pontiff praised the boldness and vigor of this country, affirming that even today, it “gives a beautiful witness” in following Jesus Christ – as Father Andrew Kim did by giving his life.

The Pope also encouraged Catholics of South Korea to continue evangelizing beyond the nation’s borders. “You have the grace of having so many priestly vocations; please ‘chase them away’; send them to the missions,” he exclaimed.

In the early afternoon, a Korean-language Mass was presided over by Cardinal You at the Altar of the Chair in the Vatican Basilica; the delegation was joined by a large number of Korean Catholics living in Italy, including nuns. One of them, a student in Milan, expressed delight at the installation of their national saint in the Vatican: “It’s truly an honor for us to feel part of the Church.”

Carved from immaculate Carrara marble by Korean artist Han Ji-seop, the statue stands over three meters tall (about 10 feet) and weighs in at a hefty 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds).

It depicts the young priest in traditional garb, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a stole marked with a cross. On its base is written his name in Korean and Latin, the dates of his birth and death (1821-1846) and the simple inscription “Priest and Martyr.”

The niche in which this imposing statue stands, on the north façade of the basilica, is at the foot of the Sistine Chapel. It stands between a niche featuring Saint Gregory the Illuminator, the first Catholicos of Armenia, and Saint Maron, founder of the Maronite Church in Lebanon and Syria.

Cardinal Mauro Gambetti, who presided over the blessing of the statue as Archpriest of the Vatican Basilica immediately after Mass, noted that these niches had previously been reserved for the founders of the Eastern Churches and major Catholic religious orders.

The Italian cardinal welcomed the Korean bishops’ request to give a place to this fundamental saint in the history of Catholicism in Korea – he is the patron saint of Korean priests – 200 years after his birth. “This is the first saint to represent a national Catholic community,” he reflected, before pronouncing the words of blessing.

Cardinals Gambetti, You, and Yeom then sprinkled the statue with holy water, followed by a vibrant concert of traditional percussion, much applauded by the Korean faithful.

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