by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
Recently, I had the privilege to make a pastoral visit to the St. Andrew Kim Korean Catholic Community, which celebrates Mass each Sunday in the old Holy Trinity Church in Lenexa.
The St. Andrew Kim Chaplaincy is blessed to be led by Father Young Gil Joo from the Cheongju Diocese of South Korea, who is assisted by a group of very dedicated lay leaders.
The Catholic Church in Korea has a very unique history. To my knowledge,
it is the only country where the faith was introduced by Koreans who encountered Christianity elsewhere and brought it back to their homeland. Only after Catholicism was already established with a vibrant believing community, did Korean Christians recruit missionary priests to minister to them.
Christianity was introduced into Korea as early as the 16th century. Korean intellectuals had a great interest in “Western learning,” in part as a rejection of their political domination by China and Japan. Beginning in the early part of 17th century, Korean diplomats brought back from China many items of Western culture; among these were Chinese translations of Catholic doctrinal books. One of these Catholic doctrinal books was “The True Meaning of the Doctrine of Heaven and Earth” by Father Matteo Ricci, the remarkable Jesuit missionary to China.
The fact that Korean intellectuals were fascinated by Christianity and, in particular, Catholicism made it acceptable for Koreans
in general to embrace the faith. Father Simon Kim, a Korean-American Catholic priest in his book, “Memory and Honor,” recounts: “In 1784, the son of the Korean ambassador to China, Peter Seung-hun Yi (Yi Sunghun) encountered a Chinese Catholic priest in Beijing and his inquiries eventually led to his baptism. With newfound faith, Yi returned to Korea to pass on the faith by transporting texts across the closely guarded border and sharing his personal experiences. Soon after, many who became believers crossed over to China several times to grow in their faith under dangerous conditions.”
Missionaries were recruited and invited to come to Korea only after a decade of striving to live their Catholic faith without the benefits of ordained clergy. Eventually, the Korean Christians realized that they needed a priest to be able to participate fully in the life of the church. In 1794, Father James Chou, a Chinese priest, came to Korea to minister to the Catholic community there.
After the initial openness to the Catholic faith by the Korean dynasty, the Christian faith in Korea underwent a series of persecutions that spanned more than a century, producing many martyrs — among them,
the first native-born Korean Catholic priest, Father Andrew Taegon Kim. In 1984, Pope John Paul II canonized 103 Korean martyrs while making a pastoral visit to Korea.
In his homily at the canonization on May 6, 1984, Pope John Paul said: “They (the Korean martyrs) are your ancestors, according to the flesh, language and culture. At the same time, they are your fathers and mothers in the faith, a faith to which they bore witness by the shedding of their blood.”
The pope continued: “From 13-year-old Peter Yu to 72-year-old Mark Chong, men and women, clergy and laity, rich and poor, ordinary people and nobles, many of them descendants of earlier unsung martyrs — they all gladly died for the sake of Christ.
“Listen to the last words of Teresa Kwon, one of the early martyrs: ‘Since the Lord of heaven is the Father of all mankind and the Lord of all creation, how can you ask me to betray him? Even in this world, anyone who betrays his own father or mother will not be forgiven. All the more, may I never betray him who is the Father of us all.’
“A generation later, Peter Yu’s father, Augustine, firmly declares: ‘Once having known God, I cannot possibly betray him.’ Peter Cho goes even further and says: ‘Even supposing that one’s own father committed a crime, still one cannot disown him as no longer being one’s father. How then can I say that I do not know the heavenly Lord Father who is so good?’
“And what did the 17-year- old Agatha Yi say when she and her younger brother were falsely told that their parents had betrayed the faith? ‘Whether my parents betrayed or not is their affair. As for us, we cannot betray the Lord of heaven whom we have always served.’ Hearing this, six other adult Christians freely delivered themselves to the magistrate to be martyred.”
Finally, Pope John Paul said: “The death of the martyrs is similar to the death of Christ on the cross, because, like his, theirs has become the beginning of new life. This new life was manifested not only in themselves — in those who underwent death for Christ — but it was also extended to others. . . . The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians: This phrase from the first centu- ries of Christianity is confirmed before our eyes.”
The story of the beginning and growth of Catholicism in Korea is a remarkable one. The Catholic Church in Korea today is vibrant with more than 5 million Catholics and an abundance of priestly and religious vocations.
Although initially Koreans were attracted to Catholicism as part of Western learning and as a rejection of the culture of their Chinese and Japanese conquerors, ultimately it was the power and the beauty of the Christian understanding of God who manifested a personal love for humanity. This love was first revealed with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and found its ultimate expression with the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary.
Recounting the beautiful history of Korean Catholicism during this Christmas season is a reminder of the great treasure of our Catholic faith. As we contend more and more with a secularized culture that shows hostility to Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, the example of Korean Catholics inspires us to treasure our Catholic faith and to be courageous witnesses of its truth and beauty.