On Aug. 17 Pope Francis stood at an altar in front of Gyeongbokgung Palace, the palace of a dynasty that ruled over the Korean peninsula for more than 500 years and was responsible for the torture and execution of an estimated 10,000 Catholics. In the face of such persecution, a public Mass would have been unimaginable in Korea just 150 years ago.
Yet today, God’s victory was made manifest as Jesus Christ, the true king of all nations, was exalted and worshipped in His Eucharistic presence by the hundreds of thousands gathered. “Christ is victorious and his victory is ours,” Pope Francis proclaimed in his homily. In the midst of the current devastating suffering of Christians in the Middle East and lasting heartbreak of a divided Korea, the Beatification of 124 Korean martyrs is a timely reminder of our hope that through Christ’s death and resurrection nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Korean Catholics’ enthusiasm and awareness of their own church history and identity as fruits of the sacrifice of martyrs has been firmly rooted long before the recent excitement surrounding the Holy Father’s visit. Throughout the year there is often standing room only at daily Mass in shrines built upon former execution sites, such as Jeoldusan Martyrs Shrine on “beheading mountain.” The grand, gothic Myeongdong Cathedral’s 6 p.m. daily Mass is filled with young professionals and old alike, many wearing mantillas and singing Korean translations of traditional Latin hymns. At Seosomun Martyrs shrine, where Pope Francis prayed before joining the crowds in Gwanghwamun Square, faithful Korean Catholics gather every Friday to celebrate Mass outside, regardless of rain, snow, or scorching heat, with special hymns and dedications to a different martyr each week. Last winter, two Korean women holding rosaries asked me to join them after Mass for “a pilgrimage to a holy place.” I was surprised to find that the “holy place” was a shrine across the street. Our Korean brothers and sisters remind us that one can be on a holy pilgrimage without leaving the neighborhood.
The Asian Youth Day (AYD) conference in Daejeon, Korea this week revealed that this is a sentiment shared throughout the faithful across Asia. “Come here, I want to tell you about the Catholic church in East Timor,” an East Timorese university student eagerly called out to me as I walked past the colorful booths of the country fair at the AYD conference. Students in traditional costumes shared the histories of the first saints and martyrs from their home countries. The conference’s theme, “Asian Youth! Wake Up! The glory of the martyrs shines on you” could be seen in the energy of students dancing together during the closing hymn of Mass and the gratitude expressed by many of the Asian students I spoke with. Young Catholic delegates from countries such as Myanmar, Pakistan, and China witnessed that in their homes the victory of Christ is still being won where “the world has hated them because they are not of the world.”
There was a strong sense of unity for those of us gathered in Gwanghwamun Square for Mass this morning, where in the Gospel reading Jesus prayed, “...that they all maybe one, even as we are one.” (John 17) When I arrived before 5 a.m., the square was already packed with people waiting and praying in the dark. Together, we watched the sun rise over the altar and the palace, and prayed a rosary in anticipation of Pope Francis’ arrival in his little Kia motorcade. When the Holy Father finally did arrive, we shared joy, applauding whenever Pope Francis stopped to kiss an adorable Korean baby lifted up out of the crowd. Pope Francis’ expressive smile as he greeted the Korean faithful reminded me that we, as Catholics, really are just one big family, and the joy on our Pope Francis’ face is a reflection of the love of our Father heaven.
During the Mass I could not help thinking of our North Korean brothers and sisters who were unable to take part in today’s celebration of their shared heritage of the Korean martyrs. Pope Francis said in his homily that the Korean martyrs “challenge us to think about what, if anything, we ourselves would be willing to die for.” With this thought, I was reminded of a North Korean defector I met earlier this year whose husband was martyred for his Christian faith in North Korea just a few years ago. Her husband had heard the Gospel proclaimed in an underground church in China, but was captured and forcibly repatriated to a North Korean prison. While he was in prison, his son came to visit him. Their conversation was very brief and closely monitored, but while they were talking, the father was able to grab his son's hand under the table and discreetly wrote on his son's hand, "We are Christians now. Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Believe in the Gospel of Jesus." Later he was executed in prison by a North Korean security agent for evangelizing and praying with other prisoners. This testimony of modern martyrdom echoes not only the 19th century Korean martyrs, but the earliest Christians whose entire households embraced both faith and martyrdom soon after receiving the truth of the Gospel.
Pope Francis’ visit to Korea and the victory of the Korean martyrs reminds us that we are all united around the world and across time in the joy and the suffering of Christ. As Pope Francis told the faithful gathered in Gwanghwamun Square, Christ “has united us to himself and he grants us a share in his eternal life.”