Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Seeing the Korean Church through the Eyes of the Martyrs

A Korean novelist, Han Su-san, who recently retired from teaching Korean literature, has published an historical novel on the lives of Korean martyrs: Their Name--More Beautiful than a Flower. Installments from the book were serialized in the "Bible and Life" magazine.

The novel, reviewed by both Catholic papers and one secular paper, begins with the history of the Church in Korea and traces the lives of individual martyrs for over one hundred years to the time of the agreement with France that put a stop to the  persecution and allowed religious freedom. During  that time there were four long periods of  persecution and the death of from 12 thousand to 13 thousand Catholics.  

The book begins with Yi Seung-hun (Peter), the first baptized Catholic. He went on a diplomatic mission with his father to Beijing China and was asked by Yi Byeok, who introduced him to Catholicism, to bring back books on Catholicism. He was baptized in China in 1784 and on his return, meeting with others interested in Catholicism, the Church had its beginning. The meeting place is now occupied by the Myeongdong  Cathedral in Seoul. Han mentions that those of the upper class, the yangbans, were meeting in the home of a commoner and when the police came they arrested the commoner and let all the yangbans leave, with a warning. This was the first repression of Catholics in Korea, which he says has been the way things have been for centuries. During the persecutions it was usually the commoners and women who suffered the most.

The author, baptized in 1989, started studying ten years earlier, before an incident with the government prevented him from continuing his studies.  He wrote a serialized novel in one of the Seoul newspapers that satirized the president, which led to his being picked up, along with others, and tortured. He had been studying to be a Catholic at that time but had to discontinue because of the government interference. It was during his own imposed exile in Japan and making a trip to Baekdu Mountain that he was finally baptized by a Korean Catholic priest.

After his baptism he had a desire to learn about the Korean martyrs and began to study their lives, including traveling to where they had lived, and literally walking in their footsteps. There are not many books like Han's, written in a simple, approachable style, that gives a layperson's view of the martyrs as seen through their own eyes. He has written, he says, with a "333 understanding"--knowing that his book will be one third less profitable, but giving him one third more joy in writing the book, and one third more satisfaction in  experiencing God in his writing.

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