By Tschangho John Kim
May is a special month for Korean Catholics. Saint Pope John Paul II canonized 103 Korean martyrs to sainthood in May 6, 1984. Pope Francis beatified 124 Koreans including 123 martyrs in 2014, and declared May 29 to be the day of commemoration for the Blessed. In addition, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Korea dedicated the month of May to adore the Virgin Mary.
Catholicism has been introduced into Korea not by missionaries, but by Korean scholars searching for the truth of the universe, a unique case in the history of religion. From early 17th century, a few scholars studied a book written by a Jesuit priest Mateo Ricci titled, “The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven.” Since 1777, a few scholars gathered in a Buddhist Temple regularly and discussed on the new idea that came from the West. One of the scholars, Seung-Hoon Lee, had an opportunity to visit Beijing, China as a member of King’s delegation in 1783. He stayed there for few months and met several Jesuit priests, and finally was baptized as Peter by Fr. Jean-Joseph de Grammont, became the first official Korean Catholic. When he returned back to Korea, a number of catechism books, crosses, rosaries and other sacred items came along with him that guided those yearning scholars as lighthouse for searching for the truth about the Creator.
By 1785, Peter Seung-Hoon Lee has baptized more than a thousand, and thus few leaders thought they need to establish a church and a sacerdotalism. They self-appointed a bishop and few priests and became disciples for spreading the Gospel which they have translated into Korean. They served Masses, communions and confessions. One of them soon found out that no one allowed to exercise priesthood without ordination and proper education. They wrote a letter with explaining what they did to Bishop Alexander de Gouvea in Beijing who was stunned at the least to hear the self-appointed sacerdotalim, asked them to stop practicing sacraments, and the self-appointed sacerdotalism in Korea thus ended in 1790. At the time, Bishop Gouvea was so moved by the faiths expressed in the letter, he dispatched a Chinese priest named Fr. James Wenmo Chou, the first foreign priest ever arrived in Korea in 1794.
Catholicism spread steadily and widely in the Yi dynasty Korea, particularly after a few missionaries arrived from the Paris Foreign Missions Society in 1831 headed by Bishop Lurent Imbert. But the faith soon faced in conflict with Neo-Confucianism, the governing philosophy in that society, and with the traditional culture. Catholic teaching then banned the practice of ancestral rites as deifying activities while Korean custom considered it as a filial duty to ancestors. In addition, the dominant strict hierarchical social order in the hermit kingdom could not tolerate the idea of the principal equality of all mankind. The kingdom’s authority thus banned Catholicism as a dangerous belief that might eventually destroy the system based on which the kingdom has founded.
The persecution that began in 1801 lasted for about 80 years during which time more than 10,000 of the Catholics have been martyred. St. Bishop Imbert was martyred in 1839 and was canonized in 1984. Among 103 Saints and 124 Blessed, there were 10 martyrs came from just one family. St. Paul Hasang Chung, his mother, St. Cecilia Choi Yoo and his sister St. Elisabeth Junghye Chung were canonized in 1984 by St. John Paul II. His father, Augustine Yakjong Chung and his brother, Carlos Chulsan Chung were beatified in 2014 by Pope Francis.
The persecution finally ended in 1882 and religious freedom was officially declared in 1894. Since, Catholics in Korea have been steadily increased to about 10% of the South Korean population of 51 million as of 2018.
Korean Catholics in the northern Virginia gathered together in 1985 and began a mission named after St. Paul Hasang Chung. The St. Paul Chung Parish in the Arlington diocese thus started with about 1,100 faithful now has 6,700 registered parishioners, the largest among Korean parishes in the USA. The Parish church was completed in 1995 with the following passion engraved on the cornerstone of the church, “We dedicate the Church to the generations to follow as heritage of out motherland we left.”
1. A Brief History of Korean Catholicism (in Korean), St. Andrew Kim Parish, LA, 2006, http://www.standrewkimchicago.org/xe/catechism/9523
2. Catholic Bishiops’ Conference in Korea, Dawn of Catholicism in Korea, http://english.cbck.or.kr/history/106; http://english.cbck.or.kr/history/1178
3. The Wall Street Journal, 2014, A Brief History of the Catholic Church in Korea, Aug 14, 2014. https://blogs.wsj.com/korearealtime/2014/08/14/a-brief-history-of-the-catholic-church-in-korea/
4. Kirsteen Kim, 2016, Are Koreans the world’s most dynamic Catholics? Catholic Herald Nov. 10, 2016, http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/issues/november-11th-2016/are-koreans-the-worlds-most-dynamic-catholics/