Catholicism was brought to Korea by scholars in the 18th century, via books written in Chinese. When missionaries arrived in the early 19th century, they were surprised to find the Faith had already taken hold amongst a small, but dedicated, group, holding out against a sea of paganism; sounds a lot like Canada, with the exception that our unbelief is a rejection of the Faith we once had.
Persecutions are sure to come, as they did in Korea, where hatred of what ‘the Faith’ represented – a God quite jealous of His prerogatives, who did not tolerate other ‘gods’ who would lead His children astray, not least ‘enlightened leaders’ led to an attempt to stamp out Catholicism once and for all.
Thousands were killed for their Faith, but they held steadfast and true, led by the indomitable example of their convert priest, Father Andrew Kim Taegon, tortured and beheaded in 1846 at the tender age of 25, by the shores of the Han River. 103 of these martyrs, most of whose names are known only to that same God, were canonized by name by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1984. Pope Francis beatified 124 others during World Youth Day in Korea in 2014.
Father Taegon wrote to his flock as he faced his imminent dissolution:
…as Scripture says, God cares for the least hair of our heads, and indeed he cares with his omniscience; therefore, how can persecution be considered as anything other than the command of God, or his prize, or precisely his punishment?…We are twenty here, and thanks be to God all are still well. If anyone is killed, I beg you not to forget his family. I have many more things to say, but how can I express them with pen and paper? I make an end to this letter. Since we are now close to the struggle, I pray you to walk in faith, so that when you have finally entered into Heaven, we may greet one another. I leave you my kiss of love.
Would that we had but a smidgen of the Faith of that young priest, whose work and witness were not in vain: Korea today, by which most people mean ‘South Korea’, although mostly secular and atheistic, still boasts a nearly 30% Christian population, about 11% of that Catholic. And, although secularism is making its inroads, they are in the main zealous and orthodox.
North Korea, usually referred to by its geographical adjective, was divided from Koreans in the south after World War II, when so many countries were given over, one might say (and many do) sold out, to the Communists under Stalin. A puppet regime was set up, which still exists today, suffering under the ridiculous, but fanatical and dangerous and often just plain evil antics of Kim Jong Un and his loyal henchmen. The country is more or less atheistic, under the cult of personality of its ‘great leader’. Christians make up less than 2% of the population, and how they practise, no one really knows
We might be tempted to despair in the fact of the realpolitik in today’s world. A fragile balance of power, on the brink of who knows what. But we Catholics live in real spiritual-tik, where God’s law, not man’s, reigns. As Proverbs declares,
‘the king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will’
And as Christ would later paradoxically teach Pilate as He stood bound and scourged before him, the Roman potentate would have no authority, had it not been given from above. God will remove the tyrants in His own good time, and in the meantime, at times we must live under persecution, even bloodshed. The worst that can happen, really, is that we give up our lives. But that is a joy, as Father Kim Taegon realized:
This is my last hour of life, listen to me attentively: if I have held communication with foreigners, it has been for my religion and for my God. It is for Him that I die. My immortal life is on the point of beginning. Become Christians if you wish to be happy after death, because God has eternal chastisements in store for those who have refused to know Him.
So let us intercede with the martyrs that many will not ‘refuse to know him’, but, as Christ exhorts the people in today’s Gospel, rather they hear the word of God, and keep it.