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Korea and the Church of Martyrs


by Alex Jensen

Planted by laymen and cultivated by martyrs, Catholicism in Korea blossomed amid violent persecution

103 Korean martyrs who were canonized by JPII

A painting portrays the 103 Korean martyrs who were canonized by Pope John Paul II in Seoul, Korea, May 6, 1984. The martyr-saints include 92 laymen and women, 10 French missionaries and Korea’s first indige- nous priest, St. Andrew Kim Taegon, pictured with hands folded at center. Photo courtesy of the Research Foundation of Korean Church History

On a warm Sunday afternoon in Seoul, people gather in serene gardens sculpted into a hillside overlooking the Han River where it winds westward out of the South Korean capital. Cars form an endless procession along a highway that hugs the Han, their passengers seemingly oblivious to the steep promontory that rises above them. This is Jeoldusan – the Mountain of Beheading – where in 1866 the Byeongin persecution turned the waters below red with martyrs’ blood.

Visitors to Jeoldusan Martyrs’ Shrine pose for photos alongside a towering statue depicting St. Andrew Kim Taegon, the country’s first indigenous priest. Beheaded at the age of 25 in 1846, he and 102 fellow martyrs are honored annually during the Korean Martyrs’ feast day Sept. 20.

Beginning in 1791, an estimated 10,000 Koreans were killed for their faith in five major periods of persecution over the course of nearly a century. The land’s first Christian was baptized in China in 1784, and there were already thousands of Korean believers by the time the first priest arrived in 1795.

“From this good seed was born the first Christian community in Korea, a community unique in the history of the Church by reason of the fact that it was founded entirely by lay people,” said Pope John Paul II in his canonization homily for the 103 Korean martyrs in Seoul in 1984. “This fledgling Church, so young and yet so strong in faith, withstood wave after wave of fierce persecution.”

Today, the Church in South Korea is home to more than 5.6 million baptized Catholics. And the country’s rapidly growing Catholic population, including members of recently chartered Knights of Columbus councils, continues to be inspired by the witness of the martyrs.


The advent of Catholicism in the Kingdom of Joseon, as Korea was called until 1897, occurred in spite of very inhospitable circumstances. Korea was known as the “hermit kingdom” for its isolationist policies following Japanese and Manchu invasions during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Despite this isolation, books from China reached Korean scholars. Catholic works, brought by European missionaries and translated in China, were among those that lit the spark of Catholicism. In 1784, Peter Yi Seung-hun, the first Korean to be baptized, sought the sacrament from missionaries in Peking (Beijing).

Jesuit Father Jean-Mathieu de Ventavon met Yi Seung-hun there, and described him as “a person whom God has perhaps raised up to spread the light of the Gospel in a kingdom where it is not known that any missionary has ever penetrated.” Upon his return home, Yi Seung-hun began evangelizing and baptizing others, even though Catholicism had been outlawed in Joseon by King Yeongjo in 1758 and western texts had been banned in 1776.

Yi Seung-hun’s lay Catholic community thrived, though it would have to wait a decade before having a single priest to minister to them.

“It was a sanctified movement,” said Maryknoll Father Gerald Hammond, who has been based in South Korea since 1960 and serves as chaplain of Bishop John J. Kaising Council 14223 at U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan in Seoul. “They read the Scriptures and tried to put them into practice. Even though they didn’t have a formal structure, it was something that was deeply spiritual.”

To the Kingdom of Joseon, Christianity posed the double threat of being both foreign and a challenge to a society built on Neo-Confucian ideals. The first official record of oppression relates to the break-up of a private gathering in 1785, when Ministry of Justice officials seized a crucifix and other items from a home in the capital near the present location of Myeongdong Cathedral.

Six years later, the kingdom executed Catholics for their faith for the first time. Cousins Paul Yun Ji-chung and James Kwon Sang-yeon were reported by their relatives for failing to perform ancestral rites, which was considered a shocking act of rebellion.

Pope Francis beatified Yun, Kwon and 122 others during his visit to Korea in August 2014. More than 800,000 witnesses watched as the pope led the ceremony directly in front of the main gate to what had been Joseon’s principal royal palace, Gyeongbokgung.

“The victory of the martyrs, their witness to the power of God’s love, continues to bear fruit today in Korea, in the Church which received growth from their sacrifice,” the Holy Father told the crowd.

Yun and Kwon’s martyrdom also had an immediate impact. After receiving a blood-soaked towel from their executions, Beijing’s bishop dispatched Chinese priest James Zhou Wenmo in time to say Joseon’s first Mass on Easter Sunday in 1795.

The new century heralded an even more perilous time for Korean Catholics and their missionary priests. A new monarch sat on the throne: 11-year-old King Sunjo. Spurred by Queen Dowager Jeongsun, a royal decree in 1801 demanded that Catholics across Joseon be reported, leading to a merciless series of executions and expulsions.

Father Zhou – also beatified by Pope Francis – was beheaded that year along with Peter Yi Seung-hun and hundreds of others.

The faithful scattered to form isolated villages, where some lived according to an egalitarian structure more in line with Acts of the Apostles than Joseon’s social structure. Nobility and peasants found equal footing for the first time, but also suffered indiscriminate persecution. Men, women and children were killed in further purges until the late 19th century.

Beginning in 1836, these lay communities were strengthened by members of the Paris Foreign Missions Society. Father Hammond retains great admiration for those first French priests.

“They knew they would be martyred,” he said. “It influenced us. Not everybody has the great grace of martyrdom, but we should have the sense of the martyrs and be willing to make a sacrifice.”


This year, the Church in Korea commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Byeongin persecution, the last and deadliest period of Joseon oppression, which claimed thousands of lives over seven years. Depictions of the killing at Jeoldusan show martyrs lined up at the mount’s peak, awaiting a blade while the headless corpses of those who came before them float in the river beneath.

A pastoral letter released by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea in March notes that this anniversary coincides with the Jubilee Year of Mercy: “It is very significant that the Catholic Church in Korea celebrates this jubilee because the martyrs are those who have forgiven their persecutors and prayed for them. They deeply experienced the economy of divine love and mercy even in the face of their death.”

The martyrs’ love of Christ is exemplified by St. Andrew Kim Taegon, one of the 103 Korean Catholics canonized in 1984 by Pope John Paul II.

Days before his execution, the young priest addressed one of his final prison letters to fellow Catholics.

“My friends! In this difficult time, we must be steadfast like brave soldiers fully armed in the battlefield,” he wrote. “Though you are separated, make one rope. … God will soon send you a much better pastor than I. So do not grieve but practice greater charity and serve the Lord so that we may meet again in God’s eternal mansion.”

This sacrifice serves as a timeless inspiration, according to Bishop Francis Xavier Yu Soo-il of the Military Ordinariate in Korea and a charter member of St. Andrew Kim Taegon Council 16000.

“We are profoundly indebted to his martyrdom and his spirituality,” said Bishop Yu. “Of course, the Korean Church was constructed by lay Catholics, which is very special, but St. Andrew Kim Taegon is in a sense the second founder.”

The saint’s legacy of charity continues to grow, as the first nonmilitary Knights of Columbus council in South Korea was named after him.

Paul Moon Chan-woong, financial secretary for Council 16000, helps to oversee the council’s wide range of local charitable efforts.

“Two-hundred years ago, Rev. Kim inspired strong faith, unity and charity in his people,” he said. “His words about ‘one rope’ remind us of the Order’s principle of unity, and our council members are always armed with these wonderful spiritual values.”

Among its charitable initiatives, Council 16000 gives rice to institutions that take care of migrant workers and offers scholarships and school uniforms each semester to students whose families are struggling after coming to Korea from abroad.

“One of our members volunteers with the blind,” Moon added. “We also offer friendship to retired priests who need companionship.”

Korea’s current challenges follow a difficult history. After Catholics were granted religious freedom in 1882, the region fell under Japanese rule in the early 20th century. Then came the tearing apart of the peninsula and the 1950-53 Korean War, a conflict that remains unresolved today.

The Church earned great credit for shining a light through the 20th century’s troubles, including South Korea’s post-war democratization process. It may be hoped that Catholics can continue to do so for those living in the North.

Father Hammond has visited North Korea more than 50 times since the mid-1990s, despite the reclusive state’s notorious lack of religious freedom. The Church in the South asserts that there are 52,000 lay Catholics maintaining their faith silently there – mirroring the experience of 19th-century Joseon.

“Catholics in North Korea go to prison along with their whole families,” Father Hammond said. “They can’t even go to confession. But you can see by their faces if they are real Catholics. Or when they shake your hand, they might really squeeze it or might even be crying.”

Father Hammond, who has been thanked personally by Pope Francis for his efforts, has occasionally negotiated the right to say prayers when visiting the sick during what he calls an “apostolate of presence.”

During a car journey on one occasion, his North Korean driver broke from protocol by recognizing a rosary as “something he once saw in the possession of his grandmother.”

Aside from the challenges of reaching north of the border, the South Korean Church has flourished, with its own missionaries now in 75 countries, thousands of clergymen at home and three successive cardinals.

The latest of those, Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung, wrote in 2010 that the history of the Korean Church is a record of “ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”

ALEX JENSEN is a broadcast journalist and writer based in Seoul. A married father of four, he converted to Catholicism after moving to South Korea from Great Britain in 2010.