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Remembering the Korean Martyrs
On September 20th each year, the Church commemorates the feast of the Korean martyrs, a solemn occasion that pays tribute to 103 valiant men, women, and children who sacrificed their lives for their unwavering faith in the early years of Korean Christianity. This revered group of martyrs, collectively known as Sts. Andrew Kim Taegon, Paul Chong Hasang, and Companions, remains a symbol of steadfastness and devotion to Christ. They were among the estimated 8,000 to 10,000 Korean Christians who paid the ultimate price for refusing to renounce their belief in Christ.
Photo credit: hpuppet
The history of persecution against Korean Christians dates back to 1791, with subsequent waves of persecution throughout the 19th century. The month of September, in particular, holds special significance for Korean Catholics, as it is a time when they celebrate the enduring witness of their country's Catholic martyrs, culminating in the feast of the Korean martyrs.
These martyrs, whose ages ranged from the 13-year-old Peter Yu to the 72-year-old Mark Chong, encompassed a diverse spectrum of society, including clergy and laity, the affluent and the impoverished. Many of them were descendants of earlier, lesser-known martyrs who had also given their lives for Christ's sake.
Pope John Paul II canonized these Korean martyrs during his historic visit to South Korea in 1984. In his homily during the canonization Mass in Seoul on May 6, 1984, he underscored the remarkable diversity of the martyrs. He said, "From the 13-year-old Peter Yu to the 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 â€" they all gladly died for the sake of Christ."
Among the martyrs honored on September 20th are two prominent figures in Korean history: St. Andrew Kim Taegon, the first Korean priest, and lay Catholic leader St. Paul Chong Hasang.
St. Andrew Kim Taegon, born in 1821 to an aristocratic Korean family with a history of martyrdom, epitomized unwavering dedication to his faith. He attended seminary in China, where his father was martyred for his faith in 1839. Kim was ordained a priest in Shanghai in 1845 and returned to Korea secretly to catechize Christians. His mission was cut short when he was arrested just 13 months later, subjected to torture, and ultimately beheaded for his steadfast faith.
Paul Chong Hasang, a layman, played a pivotal role in uniting Christians under persecution and inspiring them to stand firm in their beliefs. His appeals to Pope Gregory XVI led to the recognition of Korea's Catholic community and the dispatch of more priests to the region. Chong, who was imprisoned, wrote a letter defending the Catholic faith to the Korean government before he too met martyrdom in 1839.
The tales of these courageous martyrs are not limited to adults. Among them is the story of 17-year-old Agatha Yi and her brother, who were falsely informed that their parents had renounced their faith. In response, Agatha Yi declared, "Whether my parents betrayed or not is their affair. As for us, we cannot betray the Lord of heaven whom we have always served." Her resolute words inspired six other adult Christians to report themselves to the authorities. Together with her parents, they are counted among those canonized.
While some of the earliest French missionaries to Korea are counted among these Korean martyrs, there are undoubtedly countless others who remain unsung heroes, lost to the annals of history. As Pope John Paul II poignantly noted during the canonization, "There are countless other unknown, humble martyrs who no less faithfully and bravely served the Lord."
The unique history of Korean Christianity is characterized by the perseverance and determination of its early adherents. Catholicism first arrived in Korea in the early 1600s, not through missionaries, but through non-Christian Korean scholars who discovered it in books. These lay converts, including the first Korean baptized in 1784 after a journey to China, fervently propagated the Gospel in Korea, forming Catholic communities even in the absence of priests.
Pope John Paul II, reflecting on this remarkable history during his 1984 canonization homily, stated, "In a most marvelous way, divine grace soon moved your scholarly ancestors first to an intellectual quest for the truth of God's word and then to a living faith in the risen Savior. From this good seed was born the first Christian community in Korea."
However, the arrival of Christianity in Korea was met with hostility from the Korean authorities, who perceived it as a disruptive force challenging the hierarchical society and Confucian ideals of the political system. Some Christians openly renounced ancestor worship, a practice highly esteemed in Korean society, further exacerbating tensions. Moreover, the Christian commitment to God above all else was seen as treasonous to the king, particularly under the Joseon dynasty's rule. Some Korean Christians also sought foreign assistance to establish trade links and advocate for religious freedom, actions that raised suspicion among their fellow countrymen.
These tensions occasionally erupted into violent persecutions, as noted by Pope John Paul II in 1984: "This fledgling Church, so young and yet so strong in faith, withstood wave after wave of fierce persecution ... the years 1791, 1801, 1827, 1839, 1846, and 1866 are forever signed with the holy blood of your martyrs and engraved in your hearts."
In a continued recognition of the sacrifices of Korea's early Christians, Pope Francis beatified an additional 124 martyrs during his visit to South Korea in August 2014. This group included Paul Yun Ji-chung, Korea's first martyr.
In 2017, the Korean bishops initiated an inquiry that could potentially lead to the beatification of another 213 individuals, including some from the era of the Korean War in the mid-20th century. These candidates for beatification encompass the first bishop of Pyongyang, American-born Bishop Patrick Byrne, as well as numerous priests and laity. At the time of the announcement, the process was anticipated to take approximately a decade.
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