Catholic News Service recently portrayed the Korean Catholic Church of today and the past through the words of a retired American Maryknoll missionary. Bishop William J. McNaughton, 87, spent nearly half a century in South Korea between 1954 and 2002. During those long years, the bishop served as the first bishop of Inchon Diocese from 1962 until his retirement 2002.
“The blood of martyrs is why the church is so strong in Korea,” the bishop told the news service, adding that more than 10,000 Korean Catholics were killed for their faith between 1785 and 1886, 124 of whom Pope Francis will beatify during his visit between Aug. 14-18. The bishop told the reporter that even today Korean Catholics talk about their courageous ancestors and urge one another to have the spirit of the martyrs.
The late Pope John Paul II was the first pope to go to Korea with a visit in 1984. Since then, the number of Catholics in Korea has soared from 1.5 million to 5.4 million, out of a total population of 51.2 million. Bishop McNaughton will be watching Pope Francis’ visit next month on television from Massachusetts, where he lives with one of his sisters, according to Catholic News Service.
The Rev. Jerry Spencer, 75, the senior associate pastor at Curé of Ars Catholic Church at 94th and Mission Road, also will be watching Pope Francis’ visit on television, along with millions around the world, including me, a Korean-American. He visited South Korea, twice — once in the late 1970s while he served Holy Name Catholic Church in Kansas City, Kan., as the associate pastor and then in 1989, for the 44th International Eucharistic Congress led by the late Pope John Paul II.
Besides fulfilling 47 years of his duties as a Kansas City, Kan., diocesan priest — first at Holy Trinity and later at Holy Name — Father Spencer is well-respected for his 45 years of patient-care ministry at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
His first visit to Seoul was quite unexpected, he said. It was a trip he made with two social workers in St. Louis, in which he played the role of a volunteer for the Holt International Agency to help bring three Korean babies to their new homes in Los Angeles. He chuckled as he remembered the strenuous hours in the plane while trying to comfort a crying baby in his arms.
His second visit to Korea in October 1989 coincided with Pope John Paul’s second visit there. The pope had been in Korea five years earlier, in May 1984, to canonize 103 Korean martyrs who, with 10,000 others, including a dozen French Catholic missionary priests, perished during the severe persecutions in the 19th century. Father Spencer remembered the event well. “About a thousand priests from all over the world participated in Mass co-celebrated by the Korean Cardinal Stephen Kim-Suhwan and Pope John Paul II, along the Han River — the river that witnessed the massacre of early Catholics on a cliff (known as ‘Cut-Head’ in history books) and their remains washed away in the rapid stream.”
He estimated that nearly a million people attended the celebration. “A day later,” he continued, “a few of us priests went to Taejeon, St. Andrew Kim Taegon’s birth place, to celebrate Mass at the church that bears his name.” St. Andrew Kim Taegon was Korea’s first native priest and martyred saint, who feast day falls onto Sept. 20.
I remember learning about him through sermons as well as in history class in high school. In the middle of the persecution early 1846, he smuggled in a few French Catholic missionaries from China with a help of a fisherman, despite the tight border security against any westerners entering the country. He was caught, charged for having made contacts with the “western heretical sect,” and was beheaded on Sept. 16, 1846, at age 25. Eighty years later, in 1925, he was beatified by Pope Pius XI, and after another 60 years, he was canonized by Pope John Paul II in May 1984.
I asked Father Spencer if he had thought about going to South Korea again while Pope Francis will be there in August. “My traveling days are over!” Father Spencer said with a tinge of sadness in his expression. He then talked about his long battle with diabetes that cost him his right leg below the knee but gained him a new, donated kidney after 16 months of kidney dialysis between 2009-2010.
“I was fortunate to have been in many countries in my younger days, particularly in 1990, the 25th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood,” he said, and named a dozen countries — Canada, Mexico, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, France and more. “I’ve always been fascinated by the history of human faith and how God worked with His people around the world. And for this reason, I am looking forward to watching Pope Francis’ trip to Korea on TV, with joy and expectation.”