The first Christian community in Korea [is] a community unique in the history of the Church by reason of the fact that it was founded entirely by lay people. This fledgling Church, so young and yet so strong in faith, withstood wave after wave of fierce persecution. Thus, in less than a century, it could already boast of some ten thousand martyrs… From the thirteen-year-old Peter Yu to the seventy-two-year-old Mark Chong, men and women, clergy and laity, rich and poor, ordinary people and nobles, many of them descendants of earlier unsung martyrs – they all gladly died for the sake of Christ.
Pope John Paul II, Canonisation of the Korean Martyrs, 6 May 1984
Two ropes, carefully wound into a tidy knot – they look as though they were new, perhaps only used on one occasion. The dark brown chains say nothing. Were they witness to more than we can ever imagine? What of the ring made of thick rope, the hole in its centre little more than the width of a clenched fist? Its greasy appearance is ominous, but on whom was it used? Who trudged towards his martyrdom wearing the shackles which now lie tidily on a display-cupboard shelf?
There were so many martyrs in Korea that most remain anonymous, or virtually so. A piece of the dark brown shirt of Venerable Michel My, stained and bearing the signs of his martyrdom in 1838, lies amongst the few mementoes treasured within the Eccleston Square offices of Missio. Searching the Internet reveals nothing – not even his name – and yet he paid the ultimate price for his faith.
The Korean Catholic community suffered major persecution in 1839, 1846 and 1866, producing at least 10,000 known martyrsThe Korean Catholic community suffered major persecution in 1839, 1846 and 1866, producing at least 10,000 known martyrs, of whom Michel My was only one. The vast majority were lay people of all ages and status. Many experienced terrible torture before their horrific executions, giving Korea the fourth largest number of saints in the Catholic world. Seventy-nine of their number were beatified in 1925, followed by twenty-four others in 1968. On 6 May 1984 in Seoul, Pope John Paul II canonized all 103 and declared 20 September as their feast. Amongst the 103 martyrs were 92 lay people, 47 women and 45 men.
One of those who died in the persecutions was 26-year-old Fr Andrew Kim Taegŏn. He was Korea’s first indigenous priest and was himself the son of a martyr, Ignatius Kim. He was also the great-grandson of Pius Kim Chin-hu, who, under sentence of death, spent more than ten years in prison and died there on 20 February 1814. Andrew’s aunt, Theresa Kim, brother-in-law (Theresa’s husband), Joseph Son, and uncle, Andrew Kim Han-hyon, were also martyrs.
Ignatius Kim, a member of the Korean nobility, was arrested and cruelly tortured because he had allowed his son to leave Korea and travel to Macau in order to study for the priesthood. At one stage, because of the severity of his suffering, he recanted but was not released from prison. Persuaded that his ‘crime’ was so great that he would never regain his freedom, Ignatius withdrew his apostasy even though it meant further torture. He was beheaded on 22 September 1839 in the company of eight others.
Theresa Kim, widowed at the age of thirty-two and the mother of several children, became the housekeeper of Bishop Laurent-Marie-Joseph Imbert, a Frenchman and a Paris Foreign Mission Society priest.
When he was betrayed, tortured and eventually beheaded on 21 September 1839, the authorities presumed that Theresa knew the whereabouts of fellow Catholics, which the bishop and two other missionaries had refused to reveal. She was arrested on 19 July and given 300 lashes in an attempt to make her divulge information. Theresa refused and was eventually strangled on 9 January 1840.
Many experienced terrible torture before their horrific executions, giving Korea the fourth largest number of saints in the Catholic worldIn 1836, when Andrew was still in his teens, a French missionary priest, Fr Maubant of the Paris Foreign Mission Society, visited his village and chose him and two other boys to travel to Macau where they could train to be priests. This was no easy option. It took eight months to make the 1300-mile journey, and the three prospective seminarians arrived on 6 July 1837. One of the priests at the seminary, Fr Legregois, wrote of the future martyr:
Andrew Kim Taegŏn is active but precise, obedient but daring, and has strong will power. He is a very promising young man. He is eloquent and his judgement is good, enabling him to solve problems quickly and easily. Although they have been here only a few months, he can communicate in simple Latin and French.
Andrew was ordained a deacon in 1844 in China and decided that the safest and most effective way of returning to Korea would be to travel alone. In that way, he would be less likely to attract attention and invite arrest. Arriving in Seoul on 15 January 1845, Andrew met a few catechists before he fell ill. On his recovery, some French missionaries needed to return to China and asked for help. Life was becoming increasingly dangerous, so, although risky, Andrew decided to take them in a small wooden boat across the East China Sea from Chemulpo to Shanghai – a very long, stormy and dangerous journey.
Andrew was eventually ordained on 17 August 1845 and returned to Korea by boat in the company of two missionary priests. He was arrested on 5 June 1846 while trying to arrange the passage of more priests to Korea from China, and sent to prison in Seoul. Andrew died on 16 September 1846, a priest for only thirteen months, of which three were spent in prison.
Just before Andrew died, he made a farewell sermon saying, ‘My eternal life is beginning now.’ Missio works to ensure that the seeds of faith sown by the Korean martyrs during such terrible times of persecution will grow and bear fruit in today’s divided country.
It is both chilling and inspiring to recall that the Catholics of England and Wales, in the earliest days of Missio, were collecting funds to support these new Christians – as they were going to their martyrs’ death.