The Anguished Roots of a Church

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The Anguished Roots of a Church

In the village of Gusan in Kyonggi province, almost 90 percent of the 500 residents are practicing Catholics. Among them are decendents of first-generation Catholics, mostly scholars, who studied Catholicism through means of texts obtained in China.

"I heard that the majority of the Catholics settled in this area during the persecution era," said Kim Hak-jin, 50, a sixth-generation descendent of the martyr Saint Antonio Kim Sung-woo (1795-1841). St. Antonio Kim was one of the Catholics executed during the government persecution of Catholics and canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1984 as one of the 103 martyr saints representing the supression of that era.

"His last word at the execution site was 'I am a Catholic, whether I live or die,' " Mr. Kim said as he sat on a wooden bench near Gusan Catholic Shrine, a quiet retreat house where St. Antonio lived before he was banished and where his grave is located. Mr. Kim was detailing the tragic incident that led to his ancestor's death.

Before St. Antonio's generation, there were no churches, foreign missionaries or an organized body of Catholic believers in the country until Korean scholars sent to Beijing as envoys started inviting Western priests to Korea. The rapid spread of the religion among intellectuals, however, eventually brought opposition.

Starting with a new government led by the 11-year-old king Sunjo in January 1801, the officials persecuted Catholics, taking the lives of an estimated 10,000 Korean Catholics and foreign missionaries altogether over the next 70 years.

"I heard from the elders in my family that the foreign missionaries often wore white funeral robes on the street to make themselves less visible," Mr. Kim said. "People wouldn't pay as much attention to their skin color if someone wore a funeral robe." In 1835, shortly after King Sunjo prohibited Catholicism entirely and banned all foreigners from entering or staying in the country, St. Antonio Kim moved to a remote village of Gusan. There, with French missionary Father Mauvain, they secretly held masses in his own house.

"It used to be a remote mountain village surrounded by a forest," Mr. Kim said. He said that the road to Gusan was barely passable back in the 1800s and people wouldn't travel there unless they had compelling reasons. And because of its inconvenient geography, the village was a frequent hiding place for foreign missionaries who settled illegally and evangelized the area.

Like most Catholics who died during the period, St. Antonio Kim died chiefly for refusing to perform ancestor worship as a ceremony. The Catholic Church strictly forbid ancestor worship as a sin likened to glorifying other gods. But it was required by the Confucian government as a fundamental symbol of filial piety.

"He was raised in a traditional Confucious family, quite wealthy, too," said Mr. Kim. " We can't be too sure, but knowing that he delayed his baptism until he became an adult, we can suspect that he had quite a bit of dilemma about his spiritual identity."

It is ironic, perhaps, for the Korean Catholics who were once persecuted for "abandoning" their own traditions and followed western religion, but Catholics, at least in Kim's family, have never been indifferent about traditional values. For example, Mr. Kim's ancestors for the past six generations, in order to commemorate St. Antonio Kim, have not once left this village, despite wars and famine. Even now, there are six families living in the village who are descendants of the saint. Among them is a great-grandson of the martyr Kim Sung-yup, St. Antonio's youngest brother, who was also hanged during the persecution. Mr. Kim himself, 48, has lived in Gusan all his life except the four years he spent in the army.

"I feel home here," he said. A devout Catholic who runs at a large greenhouse near the shrine, he said he is not planning to move to another area unless he is forced to by the city's redevelpment plan, which is unlikely to happen within the next 10 years. When he described Gusan, he often used the words "my village." "Often the families of the martyrs are tempted to think of them as 'our' proud ancestors," he said. "But once the person becomes a saint, we try to treat them as people who exist outside of our family and belong to the church."

St. Antonio Kim had three brothers, who all died during the persecution. Among them, one child from the each family was also martyred. However, the Vatican did not approve the other two brothers as saints during the screening process simply because there was a lack of historical evidence.

"Even with the way they died, the official record said that St. Antonio Kim was killed by hanging," Mr. Kim said, enthusiastically explaining the saint's final day. "According to oral history passed down through our family, however, there is a high possibility that he died through the paper torture." The paper torture was a way to suffocate a person by placing layers of mulberry paper on top of their wet face.

In fact, one of the rare written records detailing the Sinyu persecution is currently on display at the Jeoldusan Martyr's Museum (02-3142-4434) in central Seoul. Written in the style of letter by Hwang Sa-young, a devoted Catholic who took refuge in an abandoned kiln in Jechon to document the turbulent circumstances, the report was eventually passed on to the Vatican in 1925, about 20 years after Hwang was captured and beheaded.

by Park Soo-mee

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