Saturday, August 24, 2013

North Korean Martyrs

On the front page of the Catholic Times is a picture of Bishop Francis Borgia Hong Yong-ho, the former ordinary of the Pyongyang diocese. Born in 1906, ordained a priest in1933, and made a bishop in 1943, he was kidnapped in 1949 and officially listed among the missing in1962.  And now with the Vatican declaring him officially dead, it allows both the Church to appoint a new bishop and  to work for the beatification of Bishop Hong and 80 of his companions.

Before and after the Korean War,  the communists were persecuting the Christians in the North, and the Church selected those for which they could find evidence of martyrdom, which is now called the cause of Bishop Hong and his 80 companions. In this group are two bishops, 48 priests, three seminarians, seven sisters, and 21 lay Catholics. The Pyongyang diocese had the largest number of martyrs, 24. Among Bishop Hong's 80 companions were a number of foreigners: 12 Paris foreign missioners, seven Columban missioners, a Saint Paul de Chartre sister and a Belgium Carmelite. Two Maryknollers were on the list: Bishop Patrick Byrne, the Apostolic Delegate to Korea, and  Maryknoll sister Jang Jeong -Eon (Maria Agneta).

The Benedictines also began the process for beatification of thirty-six martyrs from North Korea in 2007. The martyrs are listed as Abbot Boniface Sauer and his 36 companions. They include Benedictine monks,  Benedictine sisters, clergy and laity of the diocese of Hamheung.
A missioner who dies a martyr while working in a foreign country is considered a saint of that country. Besides the recent martyrs of North Korea, there is also a list of 133 the Church is working on from the last years of the Joseon period. This list begins with John the Baptist Yi  Byeok and his 132 companions. There is ample reason to understand how the spirituality of many of the Koreans is influenced by the lives of these martyrs.

Currently there is no official recognition of Catholicism in North Korea, according to those most familiar with the situation. There is a Catholic church in Pyongyang but possibly more an effort of the government to show their idea of freedom of religion than a truly Christian community. This is true for Protestantism, Buddhism and the other religions that are in the North. While the government acknowledges freedom of religion in its constitution, it interprets this freedom differently than other countries have done. Most observers would consider North Korea the most serious violator of human rights' issues in the world.

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