The Korean Martyrs
A History of Catholicism in Korea
The history of Korea’s Catholic community is unique. Here the laity began to worship as Christians before missionaries came to prostelyze. A group of Korean scholars studied the Christian faith from the books that Lee Sung-hoon brought back from China. These lay Koreans began catechizing others and baptizing them. When the hoped-for religious evangelizers finally arrived, they found their work well begun. During the half century before the first European missionaries managed to sneak into this Confucian country, 50,000 lay people had already become Catholics.
Although a Catholic priest and a monk entered Korea in the 1590’s, they were chaplains for the Japanese soldiers stationed there and could not have any contact with the native peoples. The first Korean contacts with Catholicism came through Korean diplomatic envoys who were regularly sent to China where they met Jesuit priests. The priests gave them some Catholic books which the envoys took home with them. A group of Korean scholars became interested in the books and began to study the new religion, comparing it with the Neo-Confucianism which was the traditional philosophy in Korea.
Lee Sung-hoon traveled to China with his father and while he was in Peking was baptized with the name of Peter. This intelligent young man read many Catholic books and tried to imitate the virtues of the saints and to promote the Catholic faith among his friends. On his return to Korea, he organized the first Catholic community, baptizing the new believers himself. These Catholics called one another "believing friends," abolished class distinctions, stopped offering sacrifices to their ancestors and spread the faith using books written in the Korean alphabet.
In 1785, the community was detected by the government and the Catholics were dispersed. Kim Bom-u who had allowed his house to be used as a sort of church was tortured and died two years later. Thus began the first of many persecutions suffered by the early Korean Catholics.
The Korean Martyrs On the Web
- Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea: Stories of the 103 Korean Martyrs
- The Korean Martyrs: The Pursuit of God in a Company of Friends
- WikiPedia: Korean Martyrs
- Catholic Culture: Stories of the Korean Martyrs
- Catholic Fire: The Korean Martyrs
- Catholic Ireland: The Korean Martyrs
- Catholic News Agency: The Canonization of 103 Korean Martyrs (Homily of John Paul II during the canonization)
- Faith and Family Live: The Martyrs of Korea
- Alive Publishing: The Korean Martyrs Sowing Seeds of Faith
- Catholic Online: Sts. Andrew Kim Taegon, Paul Chong Hasang and Companions
- SQPN: The Martyrs of Korea
- New World Encyclopedia: The Korean Martyrs
- Democratic Underground: The Korean Martyrs
A Personal Account
J. is a third-generation Korean Catholic and she spoke to me about the persecution of Korean Catholics suffered during the late 19th century. Today, the Catholic Church thrives in South Korea; 10 percent of the population is baptized in the Church. It moves me deeply to consider that thousands of Koreans have been willing to die, rather than to renounce Christ.
When I returned home from J’s salon, I read up a bit on the Martyrs of Korea. The first two centuries of Catholicism in Korea riddled with massacres against believing Catholics. The worst happened in 1864, when a new persecution claimed the lives of two bishops, six French missionaries, another Korean priest, and eight thousand Korean Catholics. Pope John Paul II canonized the Korean martyrs of 1839, 1846, and 1867 in 1984 in Seoul. Their feast day is Sept. 20.
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