The Korean Church began as an indigenous secular movement
Long before the Second Vatican Council and Apostolicam Actuositatem, the idea of a lay apostolate was put into practice here
South Koreans pose for a photo near Myeongdong Catholic Cathedral in Seoul December 24, 2011. Where the cathedral stands today was where the small community of Catholics consolidated when the first persecutions took place started centuries ago. (Photo: AFP)
As a statue of Saint Andrew Kim Tae-gon, Korea’s first priest-martyr, will be installed in a niche outside St. Peter’s Basilica commemorating the saint’s 200th birthday, it is unlikely that many devotees who read the statue’s description will know how truly unique the spread of Christianity in Korea was in the first place.
We are not talking about the fact that the rulers of the Joseon dynasty viewed Christianity as an alien and subversive faith that challenged Buddhism and threatened local authority, but a similar judgment was held by the rulers of Japan and China.
What is unique about the Church in Korea is that it was born and developed under the initiative of lay people and not of missionaries. In fact, many years must have passed before a stable clergy was even present in the territory. Nevertheless, the preaching of the gospel continued and the communities flourished despite the brutal persecution.
Long before the Second Vatican Council and the decree on the apostolate of secularism, Apostolicam Actuositatem (1965), the idea of a lay apostolate was already being put into practice in Korea. This makes the Korean Church an exceptional case in the world.
“The chain reaction that started it all was the arrival of the Jesuits in China”
Years before the arrival of the missionaries, the role of Korean intellectuals was indeed to note the existence of an unknown foreign religion, to the point of spreading its precepts in their own country.
The chain reaction that started it all was the arrival of the Jesuits in China. Among them, the best known is certainly Matteo Ricci.
Ricci was indeed one of the first to translate into Chinese not only several catechetical texts but many works of science and literature.
It is precisely these hundreds of translated works that have aroused interest in the “religion of Western missionaries”, so much so that the first baptisms have begun. In 1608 there were three hundred Christians in Peking and two thousand throughout the kingdom.
In 1603, these texts were also introduced to Korea through Yi gwang-jeong, a Korean diplomat on a mission to Beijing, the first to plant a seed of the new knowledge in the homogeneous, Confucius-centered Korean cultural fabric – knowledge that fell into the single broad category of “Western knowledge translated into Chinese”.
It is interesting to note here that 200 years later, Andrew Kim was arrested, tortured and sentenced to death for refusing to recant his faith by government decree. The same government in its diplomatic mission in China introduced the “foreign” religion in the first place.
“On the other side of the world, another revolution was taking place”
Thus, following the dissemination of these texts among the literary elites, what had already happened in China happened in Korea: Catholicism began to intrigue scholars and began to be studied in depth. Soon, the existence of God, the concepts of the immortality of the soul and divine providence became a topic of discussion in literary circles, especially those who gathered in the Jueo temple in Seoul.
But it was only later that Catholicism ceased to be an academic subject to become a religious reality in its own right. It was 1784. The French Revolution would break out five years later, but in the meantime, on the other side of the world, another revolution was taking place, this one however, unlike the first, was destined to last a long time. .
Peter Yi seung-hun was the first Korean to be baptized. He literally had to fetch the sacrament across the border (in Beijing) and to administer it was the French Jesuit Jean-Joseph de Grammont. Indeed, contrary to what had already happened in China and Japan, in Korea there was still no presence of priests.
The first Korean devotees gathered in the houses of scholars Beyok and Kim-Beom-u (the latter’s house was located on the very spot where Mye-ongdong Cathedral stands today in Seoul). But then, as the small community grew stronger with the addition of new and young believers, the first persecutions began.
At least 100 years, out of 230, of the history of the Korean Church are indeed marked by discrimination and the martyrdom of several thousand people. The faithful were hunted down, forced to deny their faith, and ultimately killed as we saw happen to Andrew Kim.
Persecution threatens and eliminates the founders of this first community of Christians, but despite the hostility and contempt of society and the government, the few remaining faithful manage to reorganize. They took refuge in the countryside, in more remote areas where they found the way to spread the precepts of the Gospel in these lands. It was from there that Christianity reorganized and grew stronger. In times of crisis, providence had shown them the way to successfully transmit the doctrine to succeeding generations.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.