Throughout the history of the Church, missionary priests have spread the faith to many lands and peoples. But the story of the Church in Korea is unique, because the seeds of the faith were sown by the laity and fostered by the laity, without any priests. Indeed, without even the Mass. The first Korean convert was baptized in China in 1784, then returned to his native land where he founded the first Christian community. Twelve years after the first light of faith was kindled there, a Chinese priest secretly entered the country to find 4,000 Catholics who had never set eyes on a priest. Later, two Chinese priests were sent, whose ministry was brief, and then forty years passed before the Paris Foreign Mission Society began sending priests and missionaries to Korea.
Thousands and thousands of martyrs shed their blood for the faith in various waves of persecution – over 10,000 to be exact, of whom 103 (people of diverse ages and walks of life) have been canonized. Today the Church honors their fidelity to Christ, and we also pray for those Korean Christians who continue to risk their lives in the practice of their faith. South Korea has one of the most vibrant Christian communities in Asia, second only to the Philippines. But in North Korea, Christians are forced to practice their faith in secret. Let us pray especially for them today.
who have been pleased to increase
your adopted children in all the world,
and who made the blood of the Martyrs
Saint Andrew Kim Tae-gon and his companions
a most fruitful seed of Christians,
grant that we may be defended by their help
and profit always from their example.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Below is an excerpt from the final exhortation of Andre KimTaegon, the first native-born Korean priest, who was beheaded in 1846.
My brothers and sisters, my dearest friends, think again and again on this: God has ruled over all things in heaven and on earth from the beginning of time; then reflect on why and for what purpose he chose each one of us to be created in his own image and likeness. In this world of perils and hardship if we did not recognize the Lord as our Creator, there would be no benefit either in being born or in our continued existence. We have come into the world by God’s grace; by that same grace we have received baptism, entrance into the Church, and the honor of being called Christians. Yet what good will this do us if we are Christians in name alone and not in fact? We would have come into the world for nothing, we would have entered the Church for nothing, and we would have betrayed even God and his grace. It would be better never to have been born than to receive the grace of God and then to sin against him.
Look at the farmer who cultivates his rice fields. In season he plows, then fertilizes the earth; never counting the cost, he labors under the sun to nurture the seed he has planted. When harvest time comes and the rice crop is abundant, forgetting his labor and sweat, he rejoices with an exultant heart. But if the crop is sparse and there is nothing but straw and husks, the farmer broods over his toil and sweat and turns his back on that field with a disgust that is all the greater the harder he has toiled.
The Lord is like a farmer and we are the field of rice that he fertilizes with his grace and by the mystery of the incarnation and the redemption irrigates with his blood, in order that we will grow and reach maturity. When harvest time comes, the day of judgment, those who have grown to maturity in the grace of God will find the joy of adopted children in the kingdom of heaven; those who have not grown to maturity will become God’s enemies and, even though they were once his children, they will be punished according to their deeds for all eternity.
Dearest brothers and sisters: when he was in the world, the Lord Jesus bore countless sorrows and by his own passion and death founded his Church; now he gives it increase through the sufferings of his faithful. No matter how fiercely the powers of this world oppress and oppose the Church, they will never bring it down. Ever since his ascension and from the time of the apostles to the present, the Lord Jesus has made his Church grow even in the midst of tribulations.
For the last fifty or sixty years, ever since the coming of the Church to our own land of Korea, the faithful have suffered persecution over and over again. Persecution still rages and as a result many who are friends in the household of the faith, myself among them, have been thrown into prison and like you are experiencing severe distress. Because we have become the one Body, should not our hearts be grieved for the members who are suffering? Because of the human ties that bind us, should we not feel deeply the pain of our separation?
But, as the Scriptures say, God numbers the very hairs of our head and in his all-embracing providence he has care over us all. Persecution, therefore, can only be regarded as the command of the Lord or as a prize he gives or as a punishment he permits.
Hold fast, then, to the will of God and with all your heart fight the good fight under the leadership of Jesus; conquer again the diabolical power of this world that Christ has already vanquished.
I beg you not to fail in your love for one another, but to support one another and to stand fast until the Lord mercifully delivers us from our trials.
There are twenty of us in this place and by God’s grace we are so far all well. If any of us is executed, I ask you not to forget our families. I have many things to say, yet how can pen and paper capture what I feel? I end this letter. As we are all near the final ordeal, I urge you to remain steadfast in faith, so that at last we will all reach heaven and there rejoice together. I embrace you all in love.