After having published a brief history of the Catholic Church in Korea, in 25 instalments in the CBCK Newsletter, we are pleased to present to our readers the brief stories of the lives of the 103 Korean Martyr Saints, who were canonized by Pope John Paul II at the ceremony of canonization that took place May 6, 1984, in Yoido Plaza, Seoul, Korea.
As Pope John Paul II said it from the thirteen-year-old Peter Yu Tae-chol to the seventy-two-year-old Mark Chong, men and women, clergy and laity, rich and poor, ordinary people and nobles-many of them descendants of earlier unsung martyrs-they all gladly died for the sake of Christ.
"The Korean Martyr Saints have borne witness to the crucified and risen Christ. Through the sacrifice of their own lives, they have become like Christ. 'Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the reign of heaven'(Mt. 5:10). The truth of these words of our Saviour, the truth of the Beatitudes, is manifested in the heroic witness of the Korean Martyrs,” Pope John Paul II said.
As an introduction to the stories of the individual Korean martyr Saints we present here the “Brief Resume of the Lives of the 103 Korean Martyr Saints” that was presented at the ceremony of their canonization.
"God, who desired the salvation of all peoples, planted the seeds of the Catholic Faith in Korea, in a remarkable manner and caused them to blossom. The Christian community first began to take shape when Yi Sung-hun started to study Christian doctrine by himself and was eventually baptized and given the name Peter in 1784. In the beginning, because of their belief in God, the first Korean Christians were persecuted repeatedly, rejected by their own families, and suffered the loss of not only their social rank but even their fundamental human rights. Nevertheless, despite persecutions, the faith continued to spread.
The Christian community in Korea, which had begun without any priest pastor, was finally given the assistance of two Chinese priests. But their ministry was short-lived, and another forty years passed before the Paris Foreign Mission Society began its work in Korea with the arrival of Father Mauban in 1836. Until his arrival, the Christian community was moved by an ardent desire for the graces of the sacraments. A delegation was selected and sent to Beijing on foot, 750 miles, in order to beg the Bishop of Beijing, with tears in their eyes, to send them bishops and priests.
The same appeal was made to the Holy Father in Rome. Serious dangers awaited the missionaries who dared to enter Korea. The bishops and priests who confronted this danger, as well as the lay Christians who aided and sheltered them, were in constant threat of losing their lives.
In fact, until the granting of religious liberty in Korea in 1886, there was a multitude of "disciples who shed their blood, in imitation of Christ Our Lord, and who willingly submitted to death, for the salvation of the world" (Lumen Gentium, 42). Among those who died as martyrs and who were canonized, there were eleven priests and ninety-two lay people.
Together with their spiritual pastors, there were men and women, young and old, learned and unlearned, without any distinction of social class. They were bound together by their common faith to witness that God calls all people, without exception, to the life of perfection.
Bishop Laurent Imbert and ten other French missionaries were the first Paris Foreign Mission Society priests to enter Korea and to embrace a different culture for the love of God. During the daytime, they kept in hiding, but at night, they travelled about on foot attending to the spiritual needs of the faithful and administering the sacraments.
The first Korean priest, Andrew Kim Tae-gon, prompted by his faith in God and his love for the Christian people, found a way to make the difficult task of a missionary entry into Korea. However, just thirteen months after his ordination he was put to death by the sword when he was just 26 years old and the holy oils of ordination were still fresh on his hands.
Paul Chong Ha-sang, Augustine Yu Chin-gil and Charles Cho Shin-chol had made several visits to Beijing in order to find new ways of introducing missionaries into Korea. Since the persecution of 1801, there had been no priest to care for the Christian community. Finally, they succeeded in opening a new chapter in the history of the extension of the Church in Korea with the arrival of a bishop and ten priests of the Paris Foreign Mission Society.
Among the martyrs honoured were fifteen virgins, including the two sisters Agnes Kim Hyo-ju and Columba Kim Hyo-im who loved Jesus with undivided heart (I Cor.7, 32-34). These women, in an era when Christian religious life was still unknown in Korea, lived in community and cared for the sick and the poor. Similarly, John Yi Kwang-hyol died a martyr's death after having lived a life of celibacy in consecrated service to the Church.
More than 10,000 martyrs died in persecutions, which extended over more than one hundred years. Of all these martyrs, seventy-nine were beatified in 1925. They had died in the persecutions of 1839 (Ki-hae persecution), 1846 (Pyong-o persecution) and 1866 (Pyong-in persecution). In addition, twenty-four martyrs were beatified in 1968. All together, 103 martyrs were canonized on May 6, 1984-on the shores of the Han River and in view of the martyrs' shrines at Saenamto and Choltusan, where they went to their eternal reward.”