Sunday, September 25, 2011
In the liturgical calendar, September is the month of the martyrs, a time to reflect on their place in the history of the church. The Peace Weekly introduces us to Fr. Chu, a martyr, and the first priest to minister to a community of 4,000 that was evangelized without the help of foreign missioners.
Fr. Chu entered Korea in December of 1794, sent by the Portuguese Franciscan bishop of Peking, Alexander de Gouvea to this community of Catholics. It was formed by reading books on Catholicism that were received from China. The members of the community decided among themselves to appoint priests to serve the community. Lay people said the Mass and dispensed the Sacraments until they realized this was not permitted. They then asked Bishop de Gouvea what to do. News of the community in Korea gave him great joy, and he promised to send them a priest. The first priest died before arriving in Korea, and it was Fr. Chu, who became the first pastor of this community of Catholics. At that time, there were only five foreign missioners in China, and the bishop thought an Oriental would be faced with less difficulties.
In the beginning, few people, either in China or Korea, knew that a priest had arrived, and when they heard the news, it was like having an angel coming into their midst from heaven. Fr. Chu soon began the study of Korean, baptized, and heard confessions. However, it was not long before the news of the presence of a foreigner reached the royal palace, and orders were sent to arrest him. Learning of this, the Christians made an effort to hide him, and when the police came one of the Christians attempted to deceive them by impersonating the priest, but it didn't work; three of the Christians were taken and executed. Because of the death of the three Catholics, the priest felt it was his fault and limited his future appearances with the Catholics.
He appointed leaders for the different communities, and started the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. He even selected women to fill the role of leaders, which was a change from the customary role of women in the Confucian society of that time. A noble woman, Kang Wan-suk, who was well-educated and a leader in the early community, was baptized by Fr. Chu. She hid him in her house because homes of the nobility were not searched. But news of her status within the Church leaked out and she was imprisoned and tortured, but they couldn't make her divulge his whereabouts; she was finally executed.
Because of the ferociousness of the persecution, Fr. Chu fled to an area close to China, and was planning to leave Korea, but when he heard that the Christians were suffering because of his presence, he decided to return to Seoul and give himself up to the authorities. He was decapitated on April 19, 1801. His missionary life lasted only 6 years but the number of Christians had increased to 10,000 by the time of his death. But there was now a structure in place that helped continue the work he started.
Thirty years passed before another Chinese priest came, and a few years later the priests of the Paris Foreign Mission Society entered the country. It was thanks to the wisdom of Fr. Chu that a structure was in place that continued the work of the original community. The history of this time is enveloped in a great deal of sadness, but also joy in having been able to nurture the seed of faith the community had received, even during the hundred years of persecution.