Early Catholic Encounters

Written by Kwanbae Stephanus Lee, S.S.T.
Translated by Jaehee Kim Wilder

8 12.5x17 inches Korean Lesson with Nuns

Maryknoll Sisters Studying Korean, 1925,
Courtesy of Maryknoll Mission Archives

The history of the Korean Catholic Church is a story of repeated government persecution and persistent fervor on the part of the faithful. The spread of Catholicism began in Chosŏn Korea through self-evangelization by a select group wishing to bring the new religion to their country, not by the efforts of visiting missionaries. The attempts of evangelism in the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century made by Catholics in Japan, China, and the Philippines all failed to reach the population in Chosŏn Korea.

The First Catholic Community

But in 1777, there was already a small community of Catholics in Chosŏn Kingdom, consisting of young Confucian scholars who met secretly to study the writings written by the Jesuit missionaries in China. In 1784, one such scholar, Yi Sŭng-hun, accompanied his father on a diplomatic mission to Beijing, and made contact with priests there. He returned home baptized, bearing crucifixes and Catholic writings. He then evangelized and baptized his friends and members of the secret study group. Thus the first Korean Catholic congregation was brought into existence.

Soon afterward, in 1785, the repression of Catholic beliefs began. Alarmed by the spread of this strange religion (which itself forbid Confucian ancestral ceremonies), the government issued an edict that made Catholic practices illegal. In the eyes of Confucian scholars, the Catholic religion held barbarous customs and its believers were blasphemous infidels with no respect for their elders, thus violating morals of society. Most early Catholics were highly educated, from the aristocratic class and mid-level government bureaucrats. The first Chosŏn Catholic, “who accepted monotheism as a refreshing alternative to the non-theistic concepts of neo-Confucianism, experienced a clash of values over the performance of ancestral rituals.”1 Beginning in the 1790's, new believers from the middle and lower classes also increased in numbers. When, in 1795, the first priest in Korea, Father Zhou Wenmo, arrived, the Catholic community had grown to four thousand. The priest spent the next six years presiding over the congregation, all the while remaining hidden in the home of an aristocratic lady, Kollumba Kang Wansuk.

Organized persecution persisted sporadically for 100 years, which generated quite a large number of martyrs in Korea. The ferocious persecution of 1801 was accelerated partly because of the “Silk Letter” that was written by Hwang Sayong, a devout Catholic and Confucian scholar. He wrote the “Letter” on a piece of silk fabric, appealing to the Vatican to intervene militarily and protect the fledgling church in Korea. For the government, this was the perfect proof that Catholics were committing treason in addition to other crimes of anti-Confucian behavior.

Ultimately the fate of Catholics lay in the hands of the government. The opposition party who was in power proclaimed new laws to accelerate the search and arrest Catholics, not only by augmenting police forces but also by encouraging the general public to root out the traitors among them. One example was the grouping of every five households into a unit. If a Catholic believer was found in any one of them, all five were to be found guilty of treason.

One Hundred Years of Persecution

The first Catholic martyrdom occurred in 1786, when Kim Pomu, a government interpreter, died of illness resulting from the tortures during incarceration. Another violent round up in 1801, ended when Father Zhou surrendered himself. He could no longer stand being the cause for the torturous interrogations his supporters suffered by continuing to avoid arrest. His execution swiftly followed his capture, and the executions of a large number of his congregation promptly followed. Among the other martyrs was his protector and catechist, Kollumba Kang Wansuk.

The 1801 persecution wiped out almost all of the founders of the Korean Catholic Church, including Yi Sŭng-hun, Kwon Chulshin and Chong Yakjong (Chung translated Catholic doctrines into Korean, making material more accessible and efforts at evangelism much easier). Kollumba Kang Wansuk’s many members of “Virgin Group,” and two royal princesses also suffered cruel torturing and became martyrs. This wide scale persecution and suppression of Catholics led to the movement of an underground church. For the next three decades the Catholic Church was a secret society in Chosŏn. Despite the absence of any priestly supervision, however, the Church had grown back to nine thousand by 1834. The Vatican elevated the Korean Church to an apostolic vicariate in 1831, but the newly appointed Bishop Bruguiere died of a heart attack on the border before reaching Korea. A Chinese priest, Liu Fangzhi, entered Korea later that year. Father Pierre Philibert Maubant snuck into Korea in 1836, experiencing a dangerous and difficult journey, parts of which included crawling through sewage systems. Father Jacque Honore Chastan and Bishop Laurent Marie Joseph Imbertin arrived in 1837. The Korean Catholics finally enjoyed a relatively quiet period without persecution, as a fully-fledged diocese under these priests’ supervision for a few years.

This peace and prosperity did not last too long, however. In 1839 all of the French priests were executed. Again Catholics were without any clerical supervision at least until 1845, when Bishop Jean Joseph Ferreol and Father Marie Antoine Nicolas Daveluy arrived. The first ordained native, Father Kim Daegun, was executed in 1846. Bishop Ferreol died from exhaustion in 1853, putting the Church in another difficult situation. Despite that, the membership had increased by five fold in the fifty years since the 1801 persecution to fifteen thousand. This number was dramatically reduced during the Great Persecution of 1866 – 1871, when the Prince Regent tried to completely eradicate the influences of Catholicism once and for all. Nine French clergy and eight thousand believers were executed.

After 1871, formal persecution ended and a period of rebuilding began. Two priests were able to return to Korea and Bishop Felix Clair Ridel arrived in 1877, although he was deported the following year. By 1881 there were some attempts to establish diplomatic relations with the Western powers, and as a result government officials no longer harassed priests and leaders of the Catholic community. The church membership had grown to 12,500 in 1882, six years after the Great Persecution. By 1910, there were 75,000 lay Catholics, supervised by 15 Korean priests and 56 foreign clergy.

103 Saints Canonized in 1984

In spite of the repeated intervention on the part of the royal court and constant struggle by the faithful throughout the late Chosŏn era, the Catholic Church in Korea survived and even grew significantly. One might wonder what vision all these men and women, who fought and died for their religion, had for the future of the Church in their country, and whether they could have ever pictured what it would be like today. In 2010, Korea is home to 5.1 million Catholics, presided over by 5 archbishops, 25 bishops, 4,100 priests, and 11,500 monks and nuns.  A total of 103 Korean martyrs were canonized in 1984 by Pope John Paul II.  A memorial church was erected in 1893 on a hill above the execution ground called “Saenamtuh” (place of new birth).