Where Catholicism put down roots in Korea

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Where Catholicism put down roots in Korea

Korean Roman Catholics boast that Catholicism was born in Korea. It is more indigenous than Buddhism or Confucianism, and Korea is more Catholic than the pope.
Not strictly true, perhaps, but certainly Catholicism has deep roots in Korea. When the first Catholic missionary came, in 1793, he found 4,000 Catholics already here.
There were earlier contacts: the foundations of Bulguksa in Kyongju, reportedly, yielded eighth-century crucifixes during renovations. But Korean Catholicism began with a mission to Beijing in 1606 by the poet and statesman Huh Kyun. There, he met a local celebrity, the Jesuit Matteo Ricci, who gave him translations of Catholic teachings.
Huh read them, and decided Catholicism was an improved form of Confucian ethics. Most movingly, it stressed the ideal of human equality. Huh came to believe, and he spread the doctrine in his writings.
Over the next centuries, interest in this “Western learning” (seohak) grew. Influenced, Confucians developed a new “pragmatic” school. Donghak, or “Eastern learning,” rose in response, calling above all for equality. A new spirit was moving.
In 1780, a group of scholars, under Kwon Chol-sin, formed at a Buddhist monastery near the capital, Chonjin-am, to further consider the doctrine. Young Yi Byok, 26, was especially enthusiastic: he trudged 50 km (31 miles) through snow to his first meeting. Led by his passion, all agreed to the existence of God, and of an immortal soul. They translated the Bible. They began to pray. Soon they wanted to celebrate Sundays, but the Korean calendar had no weeks. They chose the 7th, 14th, 21st and 28th days of the lunar cycle, and said the order of the Mass.
They still needed to be baptized. They chose a young man, Yi Seung-hun, to go to Beijing for this purpose. He slipped into a diplomatic mission in 1784.
He returned as Peter Yi, the first Korean Catholic. This made his baptismal name, Peter, the first apostle, especially apt. Yi baptized the others. Yi Byok became John the Baptist Yi, the prophet of Korea, heralding the coming and clearing the way.
Korea now had a Catholic Church, without missionaries. But without a missionary, they could not say the Mass. For 30 years, they petitioned Beijing and Rome for a priest. Still, the Mass was celebrated in Thomas Kim Bum-u’s home in Seoul. One Sunday, the authorities burst in, assumed the strange ceremony was witchcraft and beat Kim to death. Now, in 1785, the church had its first martyr. Myongdong Cathedral stands on the site of his home.
At last, Father James Chou Wen-mu arrived from Beijing, selected because, being Chinese, he was thought to look Korean. For Korea was closed to foreigners. Discovery meant death.
Chou, smuggled in as a returning diplomat, was billeted in the home of a noblewoman in Anguk-dong, because noblewomen could not be prosecuted except for treason, and their homes could not be searched.
Over the next five years, church membership more than doubled, from 4,000 to 10,000. Catholicism was especially popular among the educated upper classes. Even the mother and grandmother of King Choljong converted.
Fierce persecution soon followed, but it couldn’t wipe out this new growth. Nowhere has firmer faith been seen: the Korean church now has more saints, they say, than anywhere save Italy. And, since the 1960s, nowhere has Catholicism been growing faster.
A great cathedral is now rising at Chonjin-am. This is where a great world religion was born again. It is worth a pilgrimage. To get there, take the Chungbu Expressway past Namhan fortress to the Chinjin-am interchange. The shrine is 15 km to the east.


by Stephen Roney

Stephen Roney teaches at University College of the Cariboo, Kamloops, BC.

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