“The Korean Church today gives thanks to God for his gifts of faith, love and redemption. It stands among us as a modern witness to the ancient saying: ‘The seeds of the Church is the blood of the martyrs’ —Saint Pope John Paul II
During his five-day visit to South Korea in May 1984, now Saint Pope John Paul II canonized 103 Korean martyrs. This was the first canonization held outside of Rome in more than six hundred years. In his homily for the occasion, the Pope made the following observations:
“The truth about Jesus Christ reached Korean soil in 1784. In a most marvelous way, Divine Grace moved your ancestors first to an intellectual quest for the truth of God’s word and then to a living faith in the risen Christ. The splendid flowering of the Church in Korea today is indeed the fruit of the heroic witness of the martyrs. Even today, their undying spirit sustains the Christians in the Church of silence in the North of this tragically divided land. The Church on Korean soil desires in a solemn way to give thanks to the Most Holy Trinity for the gift of the redemption. To this lofty price, the price of redemption, your Church desires on the basis of the witness of the Korean martyrs to add an enduring witness of faith, hope, and charity.”
Unlike the Church in most other countries, the Korean Catholic Church was founded by the laity. In the spring of 1784, a scholar, Sung-Huhn Lee, went to Peking as a member of the Korean delegation to China, and there, he was baptized by Fr. Alexander de Gouvea, a member of the Paris Foreign Mission Society, who later became bishop of the Peking Diocese. Though the Catholic Church entered in the Far East in the late 15th Century, Korea remained in the dark due to its own isolationism, which allowed no western foreigners.
Koreans back then also dreaded mixed marriages between themselves and foreigners, fearing that foreign blood would dilute the purity of their proud bloodlines as well as disturb their class system, a system strictly divided into upper, middle and lower classes and slaves.
However, the volume entitled “The True Doctrine of God” written by Mateo Ricci, St. Xavier’s successor in the Jesuit Society, was brought into the country on several occasions between 1644 and 1770 by Korean Cultural delegation to China.
It was through this route, on a yearly basis, that contact was made with Western missionaries in China. The True Doctrine of God, translated into Chinese, attracted many Korean scholars, who called Catholicism “The Western Thoughts.” The book provided them freedom from the turmoil of the factional wrangling of politics and the social struggles of poverty and revolts. Their search for faith began with the prayer meetings and worship services suggested in the book.
Lee returned to Korea with many religious books and articles. Enriched with insights and deeper knowledge of the faith, he began to preach the Gospel without a priest. As the Catholic community grew and gathered regularly, the monarch became seriously concerned. In early 1785, worship services were prohibited by law. Thus the persecution began. Instead of diminishing, however, the number of Catholics increased. As the community grew, the members felt a great need for a priest to guide them.
A secret envoy was sent to Peking in 1789 to plead for a priest. Moved by the fervency of Korean Catholics’ faith, Bishop Alexander de Gouvea granted their request by sending a Chinese priest, Fr. Moon Mo Chu.
Fr. Chu arrived in Korea in late March of 1795. By then the Catholics numbered more than 4,000. Fr. Chu expanded the membership to more than 10,000 over the next six years, until his martyrdom in 1801. His greatest accomplishment, however, was the establishment of Myong-Do Confraternity, a vigorous women’s laity movement, which is still active today.
Two members, You-Il Youn and In-Gill Choi, were killed in May, 1795 accused of helping Fr. Chu enter the country. Fr. Chu was also martyred in 1801, along with 300 hundred members of his flock.
Despite the oppression, the Church sustained its vitality, sending another secret messenger to Peking and many more to the Vatican, reporting the persecution and asking for shepherds for endangered Catholic flock. Pope Gregory XVI officially recognized the Korean Church in 1831, and commissioned the Paris Foreign Mission Society to tend the Korean believers.
Three French pioneers, who had previously served in China, arrived in Korea in 1836. They were Bishop Laurant Imbert, Fr. Pierre Maubant, and Fr. James Chastan. The missionaries were extremely curious about the Korean Catholics who had founded their Church without a priest.
The missionaries lived in the house of a well respected scholar, Ha-Sang Chung. Their greatest handicap in this hermit kingdom was their European appearances. In order to avoid to be noticed, they only preached at night, wearing the loosely fitting mourners’ garbs and large brimmed straw hats. These first French missionaries recruited three Korean seminaries and helped them to study in Macao.
The monarch again felt threatened by the steadily growing number of Catholics. In 1839, the second persecution swept the country. The French missionaries were captured along with hundreds of Korean Catholics aged from 13 to 79.
The news of the second persecution reached Peking Diocese at no time. Two years later, two French warships approached the Korean sea to inquire about the death of the French missionaries. Strangely though, one of the ships hit a submerged rock and sank, and the other returned to France.
More French missionaries arrived in 1850, and the Church continued to prosper. In 1865, the Church had twelve French missionary priests and 23,000 members. The last and most virulent persecution in Korean history followed the next year, in 1866, during which nearly 10,000 Catholics and nine of the twelve French missionaries were executed. The remaining three missionaries fled to China.
The captured believers were treated cruelly by the persecutors. The government didn’t have enough hands to handle the “criminals.” Consequently, the persecutioners adopted simple expedient of letting the Catholics to starve to death or were taken to a cliff of a mountain over looking the Han River and beheaded.
Ever since, the mountain is called Juldoo (Behead) Mountain.
They also killed them by covering their faces with water-soaked rice paper until they died of suffocation. The persecution forced the Korean Catholics to abandon their social ranks, financial security, and even family ties; they scattered into deep mountains and remote shores, hiding their identities.
For early European Christians, accepting the faith was an invitation to persecution, starvation, and even death. It was the same for Koreans, too, but rarely anyone abandoned their faith. In order to survive, those who had been scholars, teachers, and landowners became servants, farmers, and refugees, often separated from their loving families. During their exile, many Catholics devoted themselves to learning new skills to survive.
Pottery was a common trademark for Catholic community, and growing tobacco was another. The mountain soil wasn’t suitable for growing grain, and after years of unsuccessful farming, many turned to tobacco farming, that didn’t require much water or labor. However, as the tobacco crops grew, prices slumped sharply. In 1845, supply so far exceeded the demand that twenty French francs ($5 American dollar) could buy as much tobacco as two sturdy men could carry.
Finally, in 1886, a treaty with the French government guaranteed the status of French missionaries, and the freedom of religion was finally established. The persecution of nearly 90 years became the thing of the past. The stream of blood shed by the early Korean as for their ransom for their faith and hope in God was finally staunched.
As a result of the martyrs sacrifices, today, there are three archdioceses–in Seoul, in Tae-gu, and Kwang-ju, as well as fourteen other dioceses, and a total of 5.4 million are Catholics, out of 50 million South Koreans.
A vigorous laity still forms the nucleus of today’s Church, and their ministry begins at home as they hold home and family to be the nucleus of the Christian community. The French missionaries contribution to the Korean Church was paramount.
Historians acknowledge that Catholicism introduced western civilization to Korea and also elevated common peoples’ intellect. The early Catholics, many of whom were scholars, translated religious books written in Chinese script into Korean, therefore encouraging middle and lower classes people to learn. Until then education was forbidden for common or lowly people; only for rich and high class. The missionaries not only taught the Gospels to the Korean flock but also the art of medicine, general hygiene, western cooking, and architectural techniques.
The Korean Church today thanks to God for His gifts of faith, love, and redemption, and it stands witness of what the second century author Tertullian said: “The seed of the Church is the blood of the martyrs.”