Mattia Choe, "defender of the missionaries" whipped to death for refusing to betray Christ
by Joseph Yun Li-sun
One of the first catechists of the nascent Korean Church, Mattia Choe In-gil, had the task of defending the first Chinese priest to have entered the country: he succeeded but it cost him his life. Refusing to reject the Catholic faith, he accepted a brutal death at the hands of the agents of the Court of Seoul. AsiaNews presents the life and work of these witnesses of Christ waiting for canonization.

Seoul (AsiaNews) - Defending foreign missionaries, proclaiming the Gospel and hold fast to faith in the Savior. Mattia Choe In-gil is one of the first Catholics of South Korea, and committed his life to the Gospel to the point  - with a smile on his face - of martyrdom ordered by the Court of Seoul, which fiercely persecuted the Christians for at least a century before granting them freedom of worship.

Mattia Choe is among the group of 123 companions of Paul Yun Ji-chung, victims of the Byeongin persecution (between the first and the second half of the 800) and proclaimed "servants of God" by Pope John Paul II in 2003 along with Fr. Choi Yang-oeb. The Korean Catholic Church is waiting for their beatification, and the Bishop of Daejeon Msgr. Lazzaro You Heung-sik has invited Pope Francis to Korea for the occasion.

AsiaNews has already presented the life of some of these martyrs and continues to offer their witness to readers.

Matthias Choe In-gil was born in 1765 to a translator's family. He learned the catechism from John B. Yi Byeok and became a Catholic in 1784, right after the Catholic Church was introduced to Korea. Ignatius Choe In-cheol who was martyred in 1801 was his younger brother.

From the early years of the Church Matthias Choe had taken a lead in proclaiming the Gospel with other Catholics. When Paul Yun Yu-il returned from his visit to the Catholic Church in Beijing, Matthias Choe participated in the efforts to introduce priests. In particular he was in charge of providing hiding places for the missionaries. He prepared a house in Gyedong in Seoul (now, Gye-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul) and waited for the arrival of the missionaries.

Father James Zhou Wen-mo, a Chinese priest, finally entered Korea on December 24, 1794 (November 3, by the Lunar calendar), and was introduced to Matthias Choe's house at the beginning of the following year. He tried to ensure the safety of Father James Zhou day and night, but the royal court came to know about his entry into Korea through a secret informer. Fortunately, Father James Zhou managed to escape secretly to the house of Columba Kang Wan-suk. In the meantime, Matthias Choe, who waited for the police in his house, disguised himself as Father James Zhou in order to give him more time to take refuge. He was able to devise such a scheme because he spoke Chinese fluently.

His plan, however, did not last long. Soon after he was captured, his identity was revealed and the police set out in search of Father James Zhou once again but did not succeed in finding him. Full details of how Father James Zhou entered the country soon became known, and Paul Yun and Saba Ji who accompanied him were arrested.

Matthias Choe and his companions were severely punished at the Police Headquarters. The persecutors were confused by the sincerity of their answers, their patience and firm determination. Even while undergoing repeated torture, they did not reveal the whereabouts of Father James Zhou. Rather, their faces reflected that their hearts were full of heavenly peace.

The persecutors, on realizing that they would not betray Father James Zhou, decided to beat them to death. Matthias Choe and his companions were killed by being mercilessly whipped. It was on June 28, 1795 (May 12, by the Lunar calendar). Matthias Choe was 30 years old.

Their bodies were thrown into the Han River.

Bishop A. Gouvea, on hearing the full story of their martyrdom through a secret envoy, wrote as follows about the courage that Matthias Choe and his companions had shown at the moment of their martyrdom: "To the question of the persecutor; 'Do you worship Jesus who died on the cross?' they replied courageously; 'Yes, we do.' When they were asked to renounce their faith in Christ, they declared; 'We are ready to die a thousand times rather than to renounce our faith in our true Savior Jesus Christ.' Matthias Choe was one of the first catechists that Peter Yi Seung-hun selected to proclaim the faith. He was one of the prominent Catholics, who was committed to spreading the glory of God with faith, zeal and devotion."