by Archbishop Antonio J. Ledesma, S.J., D.D.
When Pope Francis chose Korea for his first apostolic visit in Asia on August 25-28, 2014, during the 6th Asian Youth Day, some questions were raised. Why was Korea chosen where Catholics are only a minority? Why not India where the Christian tradition dates back to the time of St. Thomas? Or perhaps East Timor, the most Catholic country in Asia today in terms of percentage of the population. The warm reception that Pope Francis received from Catholics and non-Catholics alike bypassed many of these questions. Yet, it is good to look at the distinctive features of the Catholic Church in Korea that must have attracted Pope Francis and his advisers in choosing Korea as his first destination in Asia.
An indigenous Church
First, the Faith was brought to Korea not by foreign missionaries or priests but by Korean lay persons who had heard about Christianity in China. Korean scholars were able to read books on Catholicism written in Classical Chinese. Among these was a widely-read treatise on “The True Doctrine of God” written by Fr. Matteo Ricci (1552-1610). Ricci was among the first of several Jesuit missionaries to enter the Middle Kingdom. Instead of direct proclamation of the Faith, these early missionaries engaged Chinese scholars in a dialogue involving Western sciences, eventually leading to questions about God and religion. Intellectuals of the Joseon Kingdom in Korea were attracted to the principles of Christianity that gradually challenged the social structures of an hierarchal society based on Confucian principles.
By the late 18th century, the theoretical aspects of Christianity had begun to attract adherents to become practicing Catholics in Korea. In 1784, Lee Seung-hun joined an official delegation to China and was baptized in Beijing. Returning to Korea, Lee baptized several more of the learned and formed a faith community in Seoul in a house on the site of the present Myeongdong Cathedral. A decade later in 1794, a Chinese priest entered Korea in response to the needs of this first generation of Korean lay Catholics for access to the sacraments. With the help of more priests from the Paris Foreign Missions Society by 1836, the fledgling indigenous church in Korea continued to grow. And by 1845, Andrew Kim Dae-geon was ordained as the first Korean priest.
A suffering Church
However, Fr. Kim Dae-geon’s ministry was cut short when he and almost all the other early Korean priests suffered martyrdom. This is the second characteristic of the Church in Korea: a Church of martyrs. The Confucian elite of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) could not accept the egalitarian values taught by Catholicism. In particular, as an offshoot of the Chinese Rites Controversy wherein the Vatican prohibited the observance of traditional Confucian rites for ancestors, Korean Catholics adhering to this prohibition were perceived as rejecting all social order. (The Jesuit missionaries on the other hand had advocated for allowing these ancestor rites to continue as a form of what the Church today would acknowledge as “inculturation.”)
For almost a hundred years, persecutions were carried out against Catholics – in 1801, 1839, 1846, and 1866. An estimated 10,000 believers were martyred during this period – including mostly lay men and women, across social classes, and even entire families. During the bicentennial celebrations in 1984, Pope John Paul II canonized 103 blessed martyrs. During his visit, Pope Francis beatified 124 more martyrs. Korea, north and south, is said to have the fourth largest number of canonized saints in the history of the Catholic Church.
A guide book for the Asian Youth Day in Daejeon includes the personal accounts of several of these martyrs of the Faith – consisting of various forms of torture, and execution by beheading or hanging. St. Andrew Kim Dae-geon’s last words to the faithful while he was in prison are particularly moving: “Be steadfast and let us meet in heaven…. God will soon send you a much better pastor than I. So do not grieve but practice greater charity and serve the Lord so that we may meet again in God’s eternal mansion.” He was a priest for only a year and was martyred at the age of 26 years.
The Jeoldusan Martyrs’ Shrine in Seoul today is erected on the riverside promontory where the martyrs’ bodies were thrown onto the Han River. “Jeoldusan” means the “beheading mountain.” The shrine includes a memorial chapel and a reliquary where relics of
28 martyrs are kept. A museum also showcases the instruments of torture such as the rack, wooden handcuffs, a stone with rope for strangulation, etc. The martyrs’ list includes ordinary lay people in rural areas, some nobles, three French bishops and eight priests. Entire families were also in the roster. Indeed the blood of martyrs has become the seed of Christianity in Korea.
An expanding Church
This is the third characteristic of the Church in Korea: a fast-growing Church. Over the past ten years, the Catholic population has grown by 70%. The papal nuncio in Korea, Filipino Archbishop O. Padilla, told us that the Catholic Church administers an average of 100,000 adult baptisms a year! By the end of 2011 the church had 5.3 million Catholics, or 10.3% of the total population. If Protestants and Catholics are grouped together, Christians in Korea today constitute nearly a third of the population. Another third would be Buddhist, while the remaining third would have no particular religious affiliation.
The AYD Guidebook points out some factors behind the Catholic Church’s phenomenal growth: “Part of this growth can be attributed to the Church’s positive perception by the general public for its role in the democratization of South Korea, its active participation in various works of social welfare, and its respectful approach to interfaith relationship and matters of traditional Korean spirituality.”
Alliance of Religions
This explanation for the Church’s growth in Korea also summarizes its fourth characteristic – as a peace-building Church. Korea is still divided between North and South, with a threat of nuclear war and devastation over the myriad high-rise buildings of Seoul that stand as symbols of a technologically advanced society. The challenges of peace-building on the one hand and the erosion of values in a secularized, consumerist society on the other hand were some factors behind the convening of the World Alliance of Religions Peace Summit (WARP) on September 17-19, 2014, in Seoul. This was organized by a movement, “Heavenly Culture, World Peace, Restoration of Light” (HWPL), chaired by Mr. Man Hee Lee. A former soldier in the Korean War, Mr. Lee resolved to spread the message of peace in his visits to other countries.
Together with Emeritus Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales of Manila and Bishop Angelito Lampon of Jolo, I was invited by the HWPL organizers to share the efforts of peace-building in Mindanao. Chairman Lee himself had exerted efforts to meet several key leaders of the conflicting parties in Mindanao. On the opening day, Seoul’s Olympic Stadium was filled with 60,000 people and delegates from more than 100 countries. On the second day, invited international speakers joined a forum on peace-building experiences in various parts of the world. On the third day, a Peace March in Olympic Park highlighted the universal aspirations for peace.
Although the Catholic Church itself in Korea was not directly involved in the WARP Summit, the inter-faith nature of the gathering brought the various churches and faith communities together. The Unity of Religions Agreement signed by major religious leaders and public officials ended with their clarion call: “We recognize that when religions become united, wars will end, and peace will come to the world. This has been the will of God and the purpose of religion for the past 6,000 years.”
Archbishop Antonio J. Ledesma, S.J., D.D. is the Archbishop of the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro. He was formerly the Vice-President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) and has served as its chair.