Seoul (AsiaNews) – The Bishops' Conference of Korea approved this morning the preliminary review for the martyrdom of Mgr Francis Borgia Hong Yong-ho, bishop of Pyongyang, and his 80 companions who died at the hands of the regime of Kim Il-sung.
In April 2013, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints approved the application. Now the documents and statements have been collected. The analysis of the information will begin at the end of November.
The bishops have to determine whether the group is eligible for canonisation. It will vet historical documents, relics, and first-hand stories to determine the heroic virtues, suffering from persecution and the group’s lifestyle before their martyrdom. A special committee will be appointed shortly to supervise the whole process.
Born on 12 October 1906 and ordained into the priesthood on 25 May 1933, Mgr Hong was appointed apostolic vicar of Pyongyang and titular bishop of Auzia (Algeria) on 24 March 1944 by Pope Pius XII. On 29 June of the same year, he was consecrated by Archbishop Bonifatius Sauer, along with Bishop Irenæus Hayasaka and Archbishop Paul Marie Ki Nam-ro.
In 1949, as the division of the Korean Peninsula became permanent, and the Stalinist regime consolidated its power in Pyongyang, Mgr Hong and a group of priests and lay people were taken into custody and disappeared.
Another large number of Catholics were arrested in Seoul in 1950. They were led by Mgr Patrick Byrne, an American Maryknoll missionary who had stayed behind to provide some leadership in the southern capital in the absence of the local bishop, in Rome at the time.
After Byrne and his companions were arrested, they were forced to march to Pyongyang, where Maryknoll missionaries had established their first mission under Fr Byrne himself, and which he led between 1923 and 1929.
In their stories, survivors remember that during the march, the old and sick clergyman (he was already 73) encouraged his companions and shared food with those sicker than himself. In the end, he died of pneumonia.
"The greatest privilege of my life, after the gift of the priesthood, is to have suffered for Christ with all of you," he told fellow sufferers the day before he died, a few kilometres from the Yalu River, in the far north of the Korean peninsula.
On 10 March 1962, Pope John XXIII decided to elevate to the vicariate of Pyongyang to the status of diocese, partly to voice a protest against the policy of the North Korean regime, and to appoint Mgr Hong as its first bishop. Over the years, he had become a symbol of the persecution against Catholics in North Korea and more broadly in Communist regimes.
The Pontifical Yearbook (Annuario Pontificio) for 2012 still listed Mgr Hong as the city’s titular bishop, albeit indicating that he was missing. In 2013, following an announcement by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, his name was removed.