Canonization Highlights history of Catholic Church in Korea
On April 27, two previous popes — Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II — will be canonized at the same time, by the two living popes — the retired Pope Benedictine XVI and Pope Francis.
All I know about Pope John XXIII, who died in 1963 while I was still in Korea, is that he was one of the authors of Second Vatican Council who changed the doctrines of the ancient Church to what we know today. It was during his papacy that the solemn Latin Mass was changed to every language spoken by church-goers around the world.
On the other hand, I feel I’m somewhat connected to Pope John Paul II for three reasons: He was the only pope who visited South Korea (in 1984, to canonize 103 of 10,000 Korean martyrs); my brother, Father Jean Sye, who studied in Rome in mid 1960s and earned a Doctor of Divinity degree at Pontifical Gregorian University, accompanied the pope during his 5-day visit; and my great-great-grandfather’s two brothers were among 10,000 martyred.
On May 6, 1984, the Holy Father delivered this message during the canonization ceremony along the Han River, which had witnessed the bloodshed of early Korean Catholics some 150 years ago:
“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.”
Unlike the Church in most other countries, the Korean Catholic Church was founded by a lay person, scholar Sung Huhn Lee, who was a member of a Korean delegation to China and later was baptized by the French priest Alexander Gouvea. Korea was late in receiving Western civilization due to the Confucian system that, among other things, discouraged marriages between natives and foreigners. China, on the other hand, received Christianity two centuries earlier, through the work of Italian Jesuits.
The Korean monarch considered Catholicism to be “Western thoughts” and feared that westerners would eventually disturb the country’s class system.
Lee conducted prayer meetings and worship services suggested in the writings of one of the Jesuits who brought Christianity to China. At first, it was mostly scholars and their family who attended, but as the good news that God created all men and women equal spread among the middle and low classes, the number of attendees multiplied.
The monarch didn't like the reports that people were gathering to discuss “Western thoughts,” challenging the emperor’s paramount authority. At once, all worship services and meetings were prohibited by law.
Instead of diminishing, the number of Catholics increased. The leaders of the Church sent a secret envoy to China to plead for a priest.
Chinese Father Moon-mo Chu arrived in Korea in 1795, helped by Korean Catholics. By now the Catholics numbered more than 4,000. Before he was martyred during the first persecution in 1801, along with hundreds of Koreans, Father Chu expanded the membership to more than 10,000.
Church leaders again sent secret messengers to China and the Vatican, this time to report the persecution and ask for priests. In 1831, Pope Gregory XVI officially recognized the Korean Church, and commissioned the Paris Foreign Mission Society to tend the Korean flock.
Three French missionary priests who had previously served in China, entered Korea in 1836, hiding their European appearances in loosely fitting Korean mourners’ garbs, but they lasted only three years. During the second persecution in 1839, they, too, were captured along with Koreans and perished. Still, more French missionaries arrived. The last and most virulent persecution hit believers in 1866, killing more than 10,000 Catholics, including seven French priests and three bishops.
In most cases, Catholics were beheaded on a cliff overlooking the Han River and their remains were thrown into the water, but some were starved to death and others were suffocated with water-soaked rice paper pressed on their faces. The surviving Catholics scattered to remote mountains, hiding their identities, and became potters, tobacco growers and servants.
In 1886, a treaty with the French government guaranteed the status of French missionaries, and the persecution over 80 years finally ended.
The Vatican’s recent announcement that Pope Francis will beatify 124 Korean martyrs in Seoul on Aug. 16 causes me to want to go home again.