Friday, July 31, 2009

Background to the Faith in Korea Part I

We have many histories of the Catholic Church in Korea but only one concerning the work of Maryknoll which Fr. Robert M. Lilly spent many years compiling. It is the history of the Korea Region from 1942 to 2002 Mission in the South. I will take sections from the preface and prologue which will give a brief overview of the early history of the Catholic Church of Korea.

Taken from the Preface

Mission history usually embraces wide vistas and a broad theme with incisive and penetrating descriptions of personalities and events- a collection of tales that help explain and reflect an era. For those expecting something of the same I can only offer an apology for a poor attempt in that direction.

The whole Korea mission north and south, has been an ongoing entity for some eighty years. nothing would do it less justice than a single overview. Instead, this is only an attempt to lay the foundation for a history of Maryknoll in the South. It is a bric-brac of names, places and dates- with an occasional vignette to underscore a point- but on the whole a telephone book of collected date.

Background to the Faith

The Korean Church is justifiably proud in being the only one not started by foreign missionaries. In the 17th century when intellectuals increasingly questioned the suffocating confines of Confucian society they came across the writings of Matteo Ricci in China. At first Christianity's philosophy and practical aspects for solving social problems was the main attraction. "Gradually though the scholars were captivated by the beauty of the content. "

Korea as a vassal state of China sent royal envoys and yearly tribute to Peking. Those diplomats knew Chinese because it was the language of the educated class. Except for the royal convoys no one could enter or leave the hermit kingdom. Books were brought back and studied and in time a select few under the leadership of Lee Byok came to understand and appreciate the Christian religion. Finally in 1784 one member of the winter convoy was encouraged to seek baptism.

Yi Sung -hun christened Peter returned and baptized others . The number of believers increased. Soon they began to appoint their own "priests" to offer Sunday Mass and administer sacraments. Realizing their mistake they stopped the practice and sent a request for priests to the bishop of Peking. In March 1785 the young community was detected and the first martyrs gave their lives in 1791. This was the first in a serious of persecutions lasting for over one hundred years.

Father James Chu Mun-mo a Chinese priest, entered Korea ten years after the first baptism. When he assumed pastoral direction of the faithful in 1794 Catholics already exceeded four thousand in number. In 1801 seven years after arrival, Father Chu was martyred and the flock was without a shepherd for thirty-three years. Though deprived of Mass and the sacraments they encouraged each other in the faith and continued sending emissaries to Peking with requests for priests. Paul Chong Ha-sang later canonized with Father Andrew Kim Tae-gon as a proto-martyr of the Korean saints, made nine trips to China pleading for clergy but the Church beset by persecution was unable to send anyone.

Rome prevailed upon the "Societe des Missions-Etrangeres de Paris" to take the Korea mission despite the congregation's shortage of priests and funds. Three missionaries, two priests and a bishop, arrived separately in the years 1836 through 1838. They were martyred in 1839. Another French bishop already had died on the China-Korea border waiting for an opportunity to enter the country.

Father Andre Kim ordained in Shanghai, China on August 17, 1844 was the first Korean priest. He was martyred at Saenamto, Seoul on September 15, 1846. Intense persecution continued but the laity fearlessly spread the faith and one by one French missionaries slipped into Korea. Of the twelve present in 1866, nine were martyred and three escaped to China. In the following years repeated attempts to enter the country failed. In 1876 two priests, Fathers Jean |Gustave Blanc and Victor Deguette, entered Seoul in disguise and for the first time since the persecution in 1866, the Church had priests.

Imposition of trade treaties forced an opening to the West. Persecution ceased and Catholics began to enjoy full liberty. When freedom of religious practice was decreed in a treaty with France in 1886 there were five priests and 12,500 baptized members. To continue in the next blog.


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