Thursday, June 13, 2013

What Comes First: the Nation or One's Faith?

The secular Chosun Ilbo newspaper carried a story of two Catholics the Church in Korea wants to make saints. One of  them, Hwang Sa-yong, was a member of the noble class who had the ear of the king and was on the fast road to world success but gave it all up for his religious faith that he accepted as a convert. The fledgling church was being persecuted by the Yi dynasty for its teachings against the traditional ways of the country. The Church was seen as subversive and the government wanted it eradicated. Hwang, who wrote his appeal for help on silk that was to be sent to the Bishop of Beijing, was asking the western countries for assistance. When his message was discovered, he was imprisoned and beheaded as a traitor.

Even a relative on his wife's side, the famous Chong Yak-yong, a Catholic who had great influence in the early Church and in the larger society, was mentioned in the article as agreeing that he had been a traitor to the country. But in recent years many have come to see him with different eyes, and he is on the new list  presented to Rome for canonization. A symposium on Hwang Sa-yong showed consensus that he died a martyr's death. The usual thinking is that he betrayed his county for his religion. But if we look closely at the history of that time, the article says we will come to a different conclusion.

One participant said Hwang was desiring to save the country, that he wanted a just society, and that the silk message was a call for the human rights of an oppressed minority, against the tyranny of the government. Another participant agrees that the majority of our citizens see Hwang fomenting military intervention and a traitor, but if we acknowledge that the  powers within the country were infringing on human dignity and the common good, he acted in self-defense of the rights of people.

Ahn Jung-geun, the other candidate for sainthood, while in prison in China after killing Ito Hirobumi, the Resident General of Korea, when asked by the Japanese police chief, how could a Catholic kill someone? answered "When someone takes away one's country and kills its citizens and we stand passively looking on, we are committing a greater sin." In his autobiography, he said he prayed daily that he would be successful and when he succeeded, gave thanks. However, Archbishop  Mutel (1854-1933), the Vicar Apostolic of Seoul, is quoted in the article as saying "A  Catholic does not take part in killing. Ahn Jung-geun is a person who has left his religious beliefs."

A different opinion was expressed by Bishop Rho  of Seoul, who in 1946 (the year the country was liberated from the servitude to Japan) said a Mass for the deceased patriot, which brought a change in the thinking about Ahn. In 1993, Cardinal Kim in his sermon at a Mass for Ahn said "He fought against the encroachment of the Japanese and to save the country. It was self defense." The Cardinal apologized for the way the Church had looked upon Ahn for so many years. The present archbishop of Seoul, who has formally begun petitioning Rome for the canonization of Ahn, has said "The patriot fought for independence; he wanted his act to be united with the ideals of Jesus, wanting to be his tool. He gave us a good  example as a Christian."

"What comes first: the Nation or One's Faith?" was the headline for the article. It was sure to make many of its readers give thought to something that would otherwise not have entered their minds; yet the martyrs had to deal with that question. Most of the readers of the secular press would find a contrast in the motivation of these two martyrs. Hwang seemed to put religion first, while Ahn found the motivation to fight for the country in his religion.

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