Admittedly, numerous things made writing this blog a challenge. The feast of the Korean Martyrs doesn’t center on one particular saint, but numerous people — both ordained and non-ordained — who gave their lives for Christ. Meticulously sifting through a sea of resources, my research journey was also marred by conflicting pieces of information among those sources.
Since the dawn of Christianity, thousands of people have been called to a most supreme act of love: sacrificing one’s life for love of Christ and neighbor. Martyrdom, as the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church teaches, transforms a disciple “into an image of his Master by freely accepting death for the salvation of the world—as well as his conformity to Christ in the shedding of his blood.”
It is with this in mind that on September 20th we remember the Korean Martyrs, among them St. Andrew Kim, the first native Korean ordained a Catholic priest. They lived and died during the Joseon Dynasty in Korea, the last dynasty in Korean history and one which lasted for 500 years.
Influenced by Confucianism, life during the Joseon Dynasty (founded in 1392) was characterized by a strict sense of social hierarchy. However, the early stages of the dynasty was also characterized by not being closed to the outside world… Until, in 1590, Japanese warlord Toyotomo Hideyoshi asked the Joseon Dynasty for access through Korea to invade China, which was denied. Consequently, Korea experienced an invasion in 1592, and the aftermath of the conflict led to a period of inwardness for Korea.
This time of inwardness saw the deep divisions in classes cause social problems. It is within this context that Christianity became a bedrock for many people, both educated and oppressed alike. Christianity appealed to the masses because of its emphasis on the equal dignity of all human beings.
It was in 1783 when a Korean layman named Yi Seung-hun traveled to Beijing and encountered Catholic life. After being baptized in Beijing in 1784, Yi baptized his friends back in Korea. It is here that we see the power and beauty of the universal call to holiness at work. In time, however, educated clergymen were actively sought after to ensure the maintenance of sound doctrine.
In 1801, an anti-Christian edict forbade the faith, and in 1836, French missionaries first arrived in Korea. St. Andrew Kim became the first native Korean Catholic priest, ordained in Shanghai in 1844 or 1845 (sources conflict). His ministry was not to last, though. Unfortunately, amidst testing a new sea route that could be used for missionaries to enter Korea, Andrew Kim was arrested in 1846, and he was martyred on September 16, 1846.
More than 100 years have passed since the Christian persecution in Korea. On May 6, 1984, Pope John Paul II canonized many of those who were killed during the persecution. St. Andrew Kim was among them. Some of the French missionaries were included as well. St. Agatha Yi, 17, is quoted as saying: “Whether my parents betrayed or not is their affair. As for us, we cannot betray the Lord of heaven whom we have always served.”
Now that I think about it, it’s only right and just that we give the Korean martyrs the recognition they deserve. It truly takes a radical answering to the call of grace to become a martyr. We who are still here on Earth rejoice that there are indeed people who’ve kept the faith, as St. Paul puts it. While most if not all of us won’t be martyrs, the feast of the Korean Martyrs serves as a beacon of hope for us. We, too, can make it. So, aided with divine grace, let us strive to!
Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: Lumen Gentium (The Holy See website)
Korean Priest and Martyr, Blessed Andrew Kim (Joseph Gibbons, accessed via Yale Library online)
How Did The Joseon Dynasty Reign In Korea For 500 Years? | The Mark Of Empire (CNA Insider)
Korean Catholic Martyrs — Special Exhibit at Vatican Museums (EWTN)
St. Kim Dae-Gŏn (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
Mass for the Canonization of Korean Martyrs: Homily of Pope John Paul II (The Holy See website)