Korean Catholicism marked by volatile history

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

Korean Catholicism marked by volatile history


An illustration from the 1901 book “La Coree et les missionnaires Francais” by Adrien Launay (1853-1927) is presumed to show early Catholic believers in Korea during the late 18th century. As separation between men and women was customary, male and female believers were divided during Mass. Provided by Myongji University-LG Yeonam Library

The martyrdom and persecution Korean Catholics suffered during the 18th century is symbolic of the religion’s history of upheaval on the peninsula.

In fact, many say the history of Catholicism during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) is primarily a history of martyrs, with many Catholics dying on behalf of their faith.

Catholic believers suffered numerous rounds of persecution - the Sinhae Persecution (1791), the Sinyu Persecution (1801) and the Byeongin Persecution (1866) to name just a few - with about 10,000 missionaries and believers killed over a century.

But the 18th century is also widely considered the beginning of Korean Catholicism, as it was the time Joseon elites accepted the religion as a field of study and when Lee Seung-hun, christened as Peter, (1756-1801) became the first baptized Korean.

Yet there are clear records that show Koreans encountered Catholicism much earlier than this.

An excerpt from a report by the Society of Jesus, a Roman Catholic order of religious men founded in 1540, references Koreans who became Catholics after they were taken to Japan during the nation’s invasion of Korea between 1592 and 1598.

“There are many Catholic believers from the Joseon Dynasty residing in Nagasaki,” reads the report published in1610.

“They attempted to build a church with such passion. They saved money little by little, bought land and built a small church, dedicating it to Saint Lawrence.”

However, the presence of Catholics in the Korean independence movement, during Japanese colonization (1910-45), was not as strong as that of Protestantism, leading to criticism of the faith.

And during the 1950-53 Korean War Catholicism faced a crisis when the Joseon Diocese - the official Catholic institution set up in 1831 - split, as the peninsula itself was divided in half.

Yet Catholics were at the forefront of the democratization movement in Korea during the 1970s and 1980s, with Myeongdong Cathedral, known as the center of Korean Catholicism, becoming the backdrop of many significant events at the time.

And today, the Korean Catholic community focuses on missionary work in Korea and elsewhere in Asia.

With Pope Francis’s trip to South Korea - the first papal visit in 25 years - just around the corner, the Korea JoongAng Daily examines the history of Catholicism in Korea.

Desperation leads to faith

“Based on documents related to Catholicism, there were about 5,000 to 10,000 Catholics from Joseon in Japan during the early 1600s,” said Gonoi Takashi, a professor at the University of Tokyo and the author of “History of Japanese Christianity.”

The Joseon Dynasty was a strictly Confucianist society with emphasis on loyalty to the king, holding ancestral rites and adhering to the social class system.

So how and why did so many people from Joseon become such devout Catholics?

Historians believe the Catholic concept of equality for all must have appealed to the people of Joseon, many of whom were experiencing harsh lives in a foreign country.

A phrase from an annual report by the Society of Jesus even suggests that the Joseon people thought it was fate that they encountered Catholicism after being taken away from their homes.

“The reason the people of Joseon were stripped of freedom was so that they would be entitled to freedom in God’s Kingdom,” read the report.

This strong belief could suggest why these same people died for their faith, after Toyotomi Hideyoshi banned Catholicism in 1587, torturing and killing its followers.

Joseon Dynasty Crown Prince Sohyeon (1612-45), the eldest son of King Injo (1595-1649), also encountered Catholicism during his years as a hostage in China. But for him, it was not only loneliness abroad that opened his eyes to the religion, but also his academic curiosity.

He learned about Catholicism along with other Western academic achievements such as astrology, science and religion.

It is unclear how deeply involved Sohyeon was in the religion. However, it was recorded that the crown prince came back to Korea in 1645 with books on Catholicism and treasures related to the religion, with a Catholic Chinese eunuch in tow.

Had he not passed away only two months after his return, in a death considered by many to be mysterious, Catholicism in Korea might have taken a stronger root earlier.


1.Late 1700s: An illustration from the 1901 book “La Coree et les missionnaires Francais” by Adrien Launay (1853-1927) is presumed to show early Catholic believers in Korea during the late 18th century. Korea accepted Catholicism first as a field of study, which pundits say makes Korea unique since most countries learned about the religion through missionaries. Provided by Myongji University-LG Yeonam Library

2. 1910-1945: Gustave Charles Marie Mutel (1854-1933), front, was archbishop of the Joseon Diocese during the Japanese colonization (1910-1945) of Korea. While touted to have advanced Korea’s Catholic practice, some criticize that the Catholic community was too silent in the fight against Japan’s colonial rule.[JoongAng Ilbo]

3. 1910: This is a 1910 calligraphy by independence fighter Ahn Jung-geun (1879-1910). Ahn was a devout Catholic and so was his family. However, as he shot and killed Japanese statesman Hirobumi Ito, he was considered a terrorist by Korea’s Catholic community for decades.

4. 1969: In April 1969, Stephen Kim Sou-hwan (1922-2009) was appointed cardinal by Pope Paul VI, thus becoming the first Catholic cardinal from East Asia and the youngest member of the College of Cardinals.

5. 1981:Mother Teresa (1910-1997) visited Korea in May 1981. As portrayed in this photo, she met with and inspired many Koreans. She visited Korea two more times after this trip.

6. 1984: Pope John Paul II visited Korea in 1984 and celebrated Mass in Gwangju, where the May 18 Democratic Uprising had taken place four years prior. In the 1984 visit, he canonized 103 Korean Saints to mark 200 years of Korean Catholicism. In 1784 Yi Seung-hun (1756-1801) was baptized as Peter, and was the first Korean to be baptized. The pope visited Korea in 1989 for the World Eucharistic Congress.

7. 1987:Myeongdong Cathedral provided the backdrop of Korea’s democratization movement in the 1970s and 1980s. In this photo, there is a banner notifying guests that a wedding scheduled there would take place at a different venue as prolonged stdent protests at the cathedral had caused a delay.

8. 2009:Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, a figure highly respected by both Catholics and non-Catholics alike, died in 2009. People withstood the cold weather to attend his funeral mass at Myeongdong Cathedral. Kim donated his eyes to two patients in need, leading many people to become interested in organ donation.

9. 2013: The Church of Repentance and Atonement opened in June, 2013, in Paju, 50 kilometers (31 miles) northwest of Seoul, as a collaboration of Catholic communities in South and North Korea. The dedication ceremony seen in this photo took place on June 25, 2013 - on the anniversary of the start of the Korean War (1950-53).

10. 2014:Cardinal Nicholas Cheong Jin-suk, left, and Seoul Archbishop Andrew Yeom Soo-jung, right, pray on Jan. 13 at a ceremony to commemorate Yeom’s selection as cardinal at Myeongdong Cathedral. Yeom was one of 19 new cardinals appointed by Pope Francis on Jan. 12. The 70-year-old archbishop will be Korea’s third cardinal, following the Stephen Kim Sou-hwan and Nicholas Cheong Jin-suk.

Improving Confucianism

Academic curiosity is certainly what brought Catholicism to the peninsula in the 18th century.

Korean elites took an interest in the religion from the early 18th century based on materials filtering into the country from China.

But with such limited information, it wasn’t until the late 18th century that the first Catholic faith community was formed, with a book, a cross and a statue of the Virgin Mary.

“Korea is the only country that accepted Catholicism by its will and as a study,” said Kim Yang-kyun of the Seoul Museum of History.

“Whereas in other countries, the religion was introduced by foreign missionaries.”

Under the leadership of Lee Byeok (1754-86), one of Korea’s early Catholic followers, the community began meeting in the Cheonjinam area, in Gwangju, Gyeonggi, in the late 1770s.

The gathering was actually a meeting of the Namin faction of scholars, ousted from mainstream politics by Noron scholars who had taken over the administration at the time.

But with Lee Byeok’s influence, the assembly also studied Catholicism, hoping it could supplement loopholes in the Neo-Confucianist policies that were used to rule the country.

“The Noron scholars touted Neo-Confucianism as the only belief at that time,” said Lee Duk-il, a historian and the director of the Hangaram Institute for History and Culture.

“However, Namin scholars were open to other schools of thought. And that is how they came to accept Catholicism, as part of Western learning.”

Not long after, however, the Joseon government arrested Lee and others as the Korean government adopted strict isolationist policies at the time, eschewing the influence of outside nations.

This marked the start of a series of prosecutions of early Catholic missionaries and believers.

Still, the number of believers grew, and in 1831 the Joseon Diocese was set up.

According to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea, it was in the late 19th century, when Korea began opening its doors and signing treaties with other countries, that the Korean Catholic community gained religious freedom and was able to set up orphanages, nursing homes and education centers for clergy.

“In 1895 King Gojong [1852-1919] granted amnesty to those killed in the Byeongin Persecution. It was also the year that Gojong held a goodwill meeting with Archbishop Mutel,” the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea said on its website, referring to Archbishop Gustave Charles Marie Mutel of the Joseon Diocese.


From left: Jeong Yak-yong (1762-1836), a respected scholar of the Joseon Dynasty, was one of Korea’s early Catholic believers, although he is considered to have abandoned his faith under government pressure; Kim Dae-geon (1821-46) was Korea’s first Catholic priest. His birthplace, Solmoe in Dangjin, South Chungcheong, is included in Pope Francis’s itinerary; and Heungseon Daewongun (1820-98) in 1866 ordered the execution of Catholics in the country, including French missionaries. This incident led to the French campaign against Korea, known here as the Byeong-in yangyo, which was carried out the same year in retaliation for the missionaries’ deaths. [JoongAng Ilbo]

“Mutel records that 1895 was the year persecution ended.”

Pro-Japanese or not?

Maintaining religious freedom was extremely important to the Korean Catholic community, which is understandable given the sacrifices they made to gain it.

However, there has been criticism that Catholics turned a blind eye to injustices during the Japanese colonization as they were promised religious freedom by the Japanese.

Progressives claim that Korean Catholic leaders of the time changed their names to Japanese names while No Ki-nam (1902-84), the first Korean archbishop, led Catholic visits to Japanese shrines and talked believers out of taking part in the independence movement.

Mutel harshly criticized independence fighter Ahn Jung-geun (1879-1910) - largely considered a hero in protesting against Japan’s rule - who shot and killed Japanese statesman Hirobumi Ito at Harbin railway station in northeastern China.

For decades since then, the Korean Catholic community has not recognized Ahn, a Catholic, as one of their own.

Regarding such claims, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea explains on its website: “Foreign missionaries - Catholic or Protestant - believed that if religious freedom was guaranteed, they could accept whatever political situation.

“The missionaries were only looking for conditions that are good for their missionary works and rather oblivious to the implications of the region’s political, social and cultural situations.”

Catholics also say that the foreign missionaries were instructed to abide by the policy of separating religion and state, which defined religion as holy and the state as of the world.

“Based on the principle of separating religion and state, missionaries approved Japanese colonial rule as legal and viewed independence movements as political activities that could hinder their evangelizing activities or church’s expansion,” the conference’s website added.

During the Korean War, the Korean Catholic community was split between North and South. However, the Catholic community in South Korea grew rapidly after the war, with the dioceses of Chuncheon, Gwangju, Jeonju and Busan all emerging between 1955 and 1957.

The 1960s was a critical time in the history of Catholicism in Korea as it was then that the Vatican decided to respect local culture, allowing Koreans to hold ancestral rites, hanok (a traditional Korean building) to function as churches and statues of Jesus to adopt Korean faces.

Sanctuary for democracy fighters

It was also in the 1960s that Korea received a cardinal - Stephen Kim Sou-hwan.

In 1968, Kim was promoted to archbishop of Seoul and the following year named a cardinal by Pope Paul VI. He was the first East Asian Catholic cardinal and the youngest member of the College of Cardinals.

Kim was the kind of Catholic who spoke openly about social issues.

“Regardless of the reasons, basic human rights must be protected,” Kim said.

“Thus, we will do everything we can to improve unfair, unjust labor-management relations,” Kim said in February 1968, after witnessing employers at Simdo Textile in Ganghwa, Gyeonggi, firing its workers.

That marked the first time a Catholic leader in Korea had declared a commitment to social issues.

At the time, Korea was suffering under the burden of rapid industrialization and military rule.

As a prominent spiritual figure, Kim soon became involved in promoting democracy and challenging then-President Park Chung Hee’s government.

“If the police come into the church, they will see me. Once they knock me down, they will see other priests and nuns. Only when they knock them down, too, will they find the students,” he said to a public safety officer who came to notify him that the police were planning to search Myeongdong Cathedral in downtown Seoul for students who took part in the street protests that rocked Korea in 1987.

Inspired by Kim, some other priests also held services supporting democratization efforts, issued statements denouncing the military dictatorship and sheltered student protesters, sending them to other sanctuaries though third parties.

Kim passed away in 2009, and today Bishop Andrew Yeom Soo-jung serves as the archbishop of Seoul as well as apostolic administrator of Pyongyang, North Korea.

Bishop Hong Yong-ho of Pyongyang was kidnapped by the Communists in 1949. It was only last year that the Vatican officially declared Hong dead.

Yet it appears embracing North Korea remains a challenge for Yeom and the Vatican.

Last week, North Korea reportedly declined an invitation from the South Korean Catholic community to send 10 Catholics to events in Seoul celebrating the Pope’s visit, according to multiple sources in the Ministry of Unification.

BY KIM HYUNG-EUN [hkim@joongang.co.kr]

Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)