Tertullian wrote in AD197, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Nowhere is this truer than in Korea.
Missions in Asia
When Franciscan and Dominican missionaries went to China in the 13th century, they found that some Chinese were already familiar with the Christian gospel as Nestorian Christians had come in the 7th century. Nestorius taught that there were two separate natures of Christ (human and divine) and Nestorianism was condemned as heresy at the First Council of Ephesus (AD431) and at the Council of Chalcedon in AD451. From then on Nestorius broke with the rest of the Christian Church.
Roman Catholic missionaries, including St. Francis Xavier, went to Japan in 1549 to take the Gospel to the Japanese people. And in Thailand priests who came with Portuguese traders began to teach the Christian religion in the 16th century. In Viet Nam and Cambodia Catholicism was brought by French colonists and priests accompanying them.
Christianity Comes to Korea
It is odd then that by the 16th century no missionaries had entered nearby Korea. At this time some educated Koreans began to study Christian books that had been brought from China. Through their search for truth many of these believed and became Christian. They gathered in house churches without the presence of any priests or other religious teachers. These house churches were led by educated lay people of the Korean aristocratic classes. We can see that the beginning of Christianity in Korea was unusual.
In the middle of the 18th century a Chinese Catholic priest entered Korea secretly and found 4,000 Catholics there! The Christians then sent a party to Beijing to ask the Bishop to send priests to them. Two Chinese priests were sent but were not able to stay long. Almost forty years after, in 1836, missionaries from the Paris Foreign Mission society sent priests to teach and give the sacraments.
Paul Yun Ji-chung (1759-1791)
In 1791 Paul Yun Ji-chung, a member of a noble family, converted to Christianity through the witness of his cousin. Other members of his family became Christians as well. When Paul’s mother died Paul followed her wishes that she be buried according to Catholic rites rather than the traditional Confucian rite. When investigated and arrested by authorities, Paul refused to deny his newfound faith. This brought about the first of persecutions of Christians in Korea. Paul Yun Ji-ching was the first member of an aristocratic class to be martyred for his Christian beliefs. Other members of the nobility were killed along with him. They were the first generation of Korean Christians.
Kim Taegon Andrea (1821-1846)
Saint Kim Taegon Andrea (1821-1846), known in English as St. Andrew Kim, was the first Korean-born Catholic priest. Kim’s parents were converts and Kim was baptized at age 15. Later he went to study at a seminary in Macau and also spent some time in the Philippines. After nine years of study he was ordained in Shanghai, China by the French Bishop there and returned to his homeland to evangelize.
The Josean Dynasty, which was Confucian, was in power and persecuted Christians. Many were martyred during this time. This new learning was said to undermine the teachings of Confucious especially the divisions of class and it was seen as subversive to the state. Official documents give details of trials, sentences and means of torture to the Christians. By 1866 there were only 20,000 Catholics in Korea as 10,000 Christians had been killed in persecutions spanning over one hundred years.
Andrew Kim was tortured and beheaded at the age of 25 in 1846. He was one of several thousand Christians who were executed at that time. Eleven members of his family, including his father, were also martyred. Seventy-nine of the martyrs were beatified (recognized as Blessed) in 1925. Twenty-four martyrs were beatified in 1968 by Pope John Paul II. And on May 6, 1984, Pope John Paul II canonized (recognized as Saints) Andrew Kim and 102 of his companion martyrs. These included men and women and children.
Kim’s last words were recorded as:
"This is my last hour of life, listen to me attentively: if I have held communication with foreigners, it has been for my religion and for my God. It is for Him that I die. My immortal life is on the point of beginning.”
Catholics were not allowed to practise their faith freely in Korea until 1895.
The first Protestant missionary to Korea was Robert J. Thomas, a Welshman who was with the London Missionary Society. He arrived from China in 1865. In 1866, when attempting to re-enter Korea on an American ship, he was killed along with the entire crew of the ship.
Korean Catholics Today
The total population of South Korea in 2014 is 50.2 million: 6.6% of the population are Catholics, 19.7% are Protestants (all Protestant denominations), 23% are Buddhist and 47% claim no religion. There are 328 Catholic Schools, 40 Catholic hospitals, 513 homes for the elderly and handicapped, 35 Bishops, 4,261 priests, 516 male religious (Brothers), 9,016 female religious (Sisters) and 14,195 lay catechists.
Visit of Pope Francis
On August 16, 2014 Pope Francis beatified (declared Blessed) Paul Yun Ji-Chung and 123 companions during Asian World Youth Day Celebrations in Seoul, Korea.
20th Century Martyrs
The beatification process has been begun for priests and monks who died between 1940 an 1950 while undertaking evangelization missions. As well, John Song Hae-bung, a lay missionary, was martyred during the Korean War and thrity-six memebers of the Order of St. Benedict died in labour and prison camps between 1949-1952.
BBC news website accessed August 17, 2014
Salt and Light broadcast of the Mass For Beatification of the 124 Korean Martyrs. August 16, 2014.
Vatican Insider website accessed August 17, 2014
Wikipedia website. Paul Yun Ji-chung. accessed August 17, 2014.
Wikipedia website. Robert J. Thomas. accessed August 17, 2014.