A Recap of the Birth of Catholicism in the Korean Peninsula

Source: FSSPX News

Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-Yung.

With the dangerous military escalation of Kim Jong Un’s regime, the Korean peninsula has returned to the headlines.

In this context, the Vatican Museums are organizing an unprecedented exhibition on the Catholic presence in Korea.

A New Exhibition in Rome 

The cardinal-archbishop of Seoul, Archbishop Andrew Yeom Soo-Yung, traveled to Rome for the occasion. On September 9, 2017, the exhibition entitled “On Earth as It Is in Heaven” was inaugurated with a Mass celebrated by the prelate in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, president of the Governorate of Vatican City State, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, and Archbishop Hyginus Kin Hee-Joong, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea, were present.

The exhibition retraces the turbulent history of over two centuries of Catholicism on the peninsula, from the first missions of evangelization and the first persecutions, to the challenges the Church is faced with today in that part of the world. It was encouraged by the Holy Father himself, during his visit to South Korea in August 2014.

“On Earth as It Is in Heaven” highlights the five major dates of the very unique history of the Catholic presence. For unlike other missionary lands, the Koreans, who converted quite spontaneously to the Faith of Christ, set out themselves to find priests.

A Timeline of Korean Catholicism 

1784: A young scholar named Hong Yu-han discovered Christian works dating back to the evangelization of China by Matteo Ricci. The young man began to pray, and to sanctify Sundays based on what he discovered in the books. Others began to imitate this “Christian of desire”, including Peter Lee who went with his friends all the way to Peking to ask the Jesuits to baptize them.

1794: 10 years after the baptism of Peter Lee, a Chinese priest, James Chu Mun-mo entered Korea secretly for the first time. Thanks to his apostolate, the Korean Church grew to include ten thousand members. James Chu Mun-mo died a martyr in 1801.

1845: Andrew Kim became the first Korean-born priest.

1866: The beginning of the great persecutions. Christianity was seen as a threat to the social order, and the Christians were systematically exterminated: an estimated 10,000 souls fell victim to these massacres.

1886: This year marked the end of the persecution with the signing of the French-Korean treaty that guaranteed freedom of worship for Catholics in the peninsula. While the situation did improve, these sons of the Church continued to be subject to many vexations until after World War II.

Today, in 2017, they are more than five million, at least in South Korea—for the exhibition is not able to provide much information on the Catholic presence in North Korea. A western missionary, whose testimony was related by Dorian Malovic in the newspaper La Croix, speaks of an “insignificant presence,” adding that “the true believers, if there are any, have no freedom to practice openly or go to the churches that do exist.”

Catholicism in North Korea 

In the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, there is indeed a Catholic church, but for now, no priest officiates. Some civil authorities run a “patriotic association” that is supposed to manage the 3,000 practicing Catholics in the country. But it is impossible to verify this number provided by the Pyongyang regime.

However, there is punctual and discrete contact. By means of a non-governmental organization, a Catholic priest was able to enter into contact with the inhabitants:

[O]ne of the North Korean doctors with whom I worked knew perfectly well that I was a Catholic priest,” says the cleric, adding that “we even spoke often of religion, our sacraments, our practices. He was curious but seemed unopen to the Faith.

The Roman exhibition on Catholicism in Korea is free until November 17, 2017. According to its organizers, it has a double goal: to make the Korean Church known and to send out a message of peace at a time when tensions are high in the 

Land of the Morning Calm.