Korean Christianity’s unique history
Knowledge of Catholic Christianity arrived in Korea early in the 1600s, but not directly through missionaries. Rather, non-Christian Korean scholars learned about it through books. Some Koreans would become convinced Christians, but only in 1784 was the first Korean baptized after traveling to China to seek out Jesuit missionaries. It was these lay Christians who brought the Gospel to Korea and formed Catholic communities even without priests.
“In a most marvelous way, divine grace soon moved your scholarly ancestors first to an intellectual quest for the truth of God’s word and then to a living faith in the risen Savior,” Pope John Paul II commented in his 1984 canonization Mass homily. “From this good seed was born the first Christian community in Korea.”
Korean leaders, however, saw Christianity as a disruptive force that undermined hierarchical society and Confucian ideals of the political system. Some Christians openly renounced ancestor worship, which Korean society prized, according to UCA News. The Christian priority on God was perceived to be treason to the king, especially under the ruling Joseon dynasty. Some Korean Christians also turned to foreign powers to establish trade links and encourage religious freedom, actions that other Koreans found suspicious.
Hostility toward Christians turned violent multiple times.
As John Paul II said in 1984: “This fledgling Church, so young and yet so strong in faith, withstood wave after wave of fierce persecution … the years 1791, 1801, 1827, 1839, 1846, and 1866 are forever signed with the holy blood of your martyrs and engraved in your hearts.”
Other Korean martyrs have been beatified — and more are expected
Pope Francis beatified another 124 martyrs during his August 2014 visit to South Korea. These included Paul Yun Ji-chung, Korea’s first martyr.
In 2017, the Korean bishops announced they would begin an inquiry that could lead to the beatification of another 213 people, including some from the period of the Korean War in the mid-20th century. Candidates for beatification include the first bishop of Pyongyang; American-born Bishop Patrick Byrne; and numerous priests and laity. At the time of the announcement, the process was expected to take 10 years.