by Vic Kevin Ferrer
Over the past few years Korean pop culture has taken the world by storm.
I must admit that I myself, even though reluctant at first, got hooked to K-dramas over the lockdown period. What fascinated me most was how the character of a priest or the portrayal of the catholic priesthood figured prominently and positively in at least 2 top rating dramas that I have seen - The Fiery Priest and Hospital Playlist.
This caused me to look into Catholicism in Korea and led me to discover interesting facts about the local Church there. Remember that the Catholic church is both local and universal and so the story of the Church in Korea is in a sense a part of every Catholic’s story too.
Talk about Catholicism in the Far East and Filipinos would often be quick to point out that the Philippines is the only predominantly catholic country in Asia. While we can say it is true (save for the fact that Timor Leste is also mostly Catholic) we must pay equal attention to the smaller and yet not less significant presence of the Church in our Asian neighbors. One way to do this is by getting to know their saints.
Korea has 103 canonized saints and 123 more are beatified and on their way to sainthood. All of them are martyrs and part of more than 8,000 Korean Christians killed during a time of persecution during the 19th century. Foremost among these martyrs is St. Andrew Kim Taegon, Korea’s first native priest and patron saint. Living at a very difficult time for Christians, his journey to the priesthood was doubly difficult.
Beginnings of the Church in Korea
In order to better appreciate the circumstances of Andrew’s vocation story, we have to look back at how Christianity came to Korea. Around the late 18th century, Korea has already cut off any contact with the rest of the world except for Beijing where they deliver tributes. It was from there that Korean scholars acquired books about Christianity. They were so convinced by the Gospel that the faith began to spread among the locals nourished by a life of prayer and pious practices. Take note that there were no priests and therefore no sacraments were available to them and yet they grew.
It took twelve years before the first priest secretly arrived from China and to his great surprise he found a Christian community hungry for the Sacraments. Korea is the only nation to which Catholicism came without priests. In early 19th century, a systematic persecution of Christians began in Korea that lasted until 1883 when religious freedom was declared.
St. Andrew Kim’s Journey to the Priesthood
Andrew Kim was born in August 21, 1821. His parents were Christian converts and he himself was baptized when he was already 15 years old. Desiring to become a priest shortly after his baptism, he travelled to Macau in China to enter a seminary. After 9 years, he was ordained a priest in Shanghai.
Going back to Korea as a priest he dedicated his life to preaching and spreading the Gospel. Christianity was already suppressed at this time in Korea and so they had to practice their faith covertly. He also took up the dangerous task of arranging for the secret entry of more and more missionary-priests.
St. Andrew Kim’s journey to the priesthood was also his ascent to Calvary. Not long after his return to his homeland in 1846 he was captured, tortured, and beheaded. He was only 25 years old when he won the crown of martyrdom joining thousands of other Korean Christians in shedding their blood; bearing witness to the faith. His very own father also died a martyr before him.
A Philippine Connection
Between 1837 and 1841 during a time of civil unrest in Macau, Andrew Kim came to the Philippines and stayed with the Dominicans to continue his studies in a convent in Brgy. Lolomboy, Bocaue, Bulacan. Today, you can find a church and shrine built in his honor in the very same place where St. Andrew Kim stayed.
Remembering the Martyrs
In 1984, St. John Paul II visited South Korea and canonized St. Andrew Kim along with 99 other Korean martyrs and 3 French missionaries who were also martyrs. In 2014 Pope Francis visited South Korea in his first apostolic voyage to the Far East. There he beatified 124 Korean martyrs during the celebration of Asian Youth Day. Each one of these martyrs has their own story to tell but even if we do not know most of them, we can be certain that their blood, like seeds that fell into the ground, have grown and become fruitful.
Today the Church in South Korea is a vibrant community numbering in the millions and growing. Every year in the month of September, the Church in South Korea celebrates Martyrs’ Month with exhibits, Masses, and pilgrimages. As a matter of fact, in 2018 the Vatican officially recognized the many martyrs’ memorials in Seoul as international pilgrimage site for all Catholics- the only one in Asia. This recognition places Seoul Pilgrimage Routes alongside Lourdes in France and Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
In the 90’s, Korean dramas were unheard of in the Philippines. What our parents had then were TV novelas from Latin America. Pop culture then was heavily western. Today we see a flourishing pop culture that is truly and uniquely Asian shared across borders. Many Filipinos are now more accommodating to cultural exchanges with our Asian neighbors, and I hope that in the Church a similar exchange will happen with Asian saints. St. Andrew Kim went to China and the Philippines. Our very own St. Lorenzo Ruiz was martyred in Japan. After all, Asian Catholics are all joined together in communion with the one Body of Christ.
St. Andrew Kim Taegon and the Korean Martyrs are a source of inspiration and powerful intercessions for Catholics all over the world. For us Asians in particular, their prophetic witness is a continuing challenge and a call to mission. The witness of the martyrs continues to bring life for the Church in Asia. Now that we got to know St. Andrew Kim, let us allow more Asian martyrs to enter our consciousness as Asian Catholics.
“May the great host of Asian martyrs, old and new, never cease to teach the Church in Asia what it means to bear witness to the Lamb in whose blood they have washed their shining robes (cf. Rev 7:14)! May they stand as indomitable witnesses to the truth that Christians are called always and everywhere to proclaim nothing other than the power of the Lord's Cross! And may the blood of Asia's martyrs be now as always the seed of new life for the Church in every corner of the continent!” (St. John Paul II, Ecclesia in Asia 49)