Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Catholic Church of Korea is remembering the first seminarian and  second priest on the 150th anniversary  of his death. Fr. Thomas Choi died in 1861 from overwork and typhoid fever. The first  in any sequence is easily remembered; the second usually remains hidden in history but Choi Yang-eop (Thomas) was an extraordinary person and will be taking his rightful place beside Kim Taegon (Andrew)--the first Korean priest--as a model for the Korean Church. He is on the list of 125 sent to  Rome, and this time his mother's name was added.

His father was St. Choi Kyong-hwan (Francis), and his mother was Lee Seong-yea (Maria). The mother briefly put aside her faith because of the pressures of raising five children after she had her oldest son Thomas. The difficulty of combining these two interests was eventually overcome and she died a martyr. The thinking at that time was such  that even this brief lapse would not be understood by the Catholics, so her name did not appear with her husband's on the list sent to Rome.  Times have changed and she will be with her son, the only one on the list not a martyr.

The editorial in the Catholic Times reports the different events in some of the dioceses in remembrance of his death. He is called the "martyr of sweat." During his years of pastoral work the Church was still being persecuted, and he would be visiting  127 different areas where the Catholics were located to baptize, hear confessions and instruct. Since this was  during the years of persecution his encounters with death were not a few. 
He was a man with many talents, and although we speak a great deal about Kim Andrew, Choi Thomas was no less an influence on the early Church. He was ordained in 1849, worked  for only 12 years, and died at the age of 40, but he left us much by which he is remembered.

As the editorial said, Thomas worked hard to give the early Church an inner spiritual life, which was an important  part of the foundations of  early Catholicism. He was talented in music and spent time writing verses that the Christians would be singing to the tunes of the time. He also translated religious books written in Chinese characters into Korean script for his uneducated Christians. I can recall hearing in some of the mission stations the Catholics singing some of the teachings they had learned. It was a practice that served them well when they didn't have visits from the parish more than two times a year. At times they would sing spontaneously a song of praise for those who were serving them.

The 19 letters he left behind tell us a great deal about the early Church and is now part of our history. All the letters were written in Latin but so well done that even his teachers were surprised.

The two dioceses  involved in making the spirituality of Choi Thomas known to our Christians are Andong and  Cheongju. His life and work and the influence that Fr. Choi had on Korean Catholicism will soon be getting the publicity they deserve.


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