03/21/2014, 00.00
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As it gets ready for a papal visit, Korea rediscovers its early encounter with the Christian faith

Following the announcement that Pope Francis will visit the country, Koreans, including non-Christians, are debating the teachings of the Gospel and the religion's first coming in the country during the period of persecution under the Joseon kingdom. A government site posts excerpts from the first catechism, written in the 18th century by a courtly scholar commenting the works of Matteo Ricci.

Seoul (AsiaNews) - Yaso "is the king [sent] to grant salvation to the world, and Dusa is the name Our Heavenly Lord Cheonju took after incarnation. Dusa created heaven and earth and all things dwelling upon it when the earth was a formless void," wrote Lee Deok-mu, the great Korean scholar as he described the Catholic faith to his 18th century contemporaries.

Lee's study, a commentary on the works of Matthew Ricci, is the basis upon which the faith of Paul Yun Ji-chun, the first martyr Pope Francis will beatify during his apostolic visit to South Korea, was built.

Posted today on korea.net, South Korea's official government website, this and other works are the way the country's authorities want to illustrate the history of the spread of Christianity in Korea and comment the upcoming papal visit.

A few days ago, Mgr Peter Kang U-il, Bishop of Jeju and president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea, told AsiaNews that "even non-Christians in our society are attracted by the Pope. I believe that his visit will revamp evangelisation in the country."

In view of this, the Bishops' Conference plans a plenary meeting on 24-28 March in Seoul to prepare the visit. The prelates will discuss the pope's schedule, technical and practical issues related to the trip, as well as what to do ahead of Francis' arrival. The history of Korean Catholicism tops their agenda since the first Korean Catholics were highborn lay people who discovered the faith without the help of foreign missionaries

Born in Seoul in 1794, Lee Deok-mu is not on the list of the new Blessed. Son of a royal concubine, he lived in poverty until King Yeongjo's reforms, which allowed the sons of members of the royal household and unofficial wives to serve at the Court.

During his life, Lee visited the Qing Court in China and became fascinated by books on 'Western Wisdom'. Here, in the Middle Kingdom, he was particularly drawn to the works of Matteo Ricci, whose opus, The true nature of our Lord of Heaven, he read. When he went home, he wrote his own version of the book.

In the 18th century transliteration of Korean characters, Yaso is "Christ", and Dusa is the Father. "The first human being, Ahdang (Adam), followed the words of Ahmal (Satan) and denied Dusa," Lee wrote. "Therefore, Dusa came down to Earth to deliver man from sin on the 57th day (Gyeongshin) of the 2nd year of the Reign of Han Emperor Ae, in the 57th year after the founding of Silla," when "according to the word of Eemadu (Matthew) from Yeodeokahguk (Judea)," came Yaso (Christ), "through the body of the Virgin Mary."

Yaso, the scholar wrote, "roamed far and wide for 33 years, giving testament to the Right Way and was tried by villain Banjakbillalda (Pontius Pilate) and under false accusation was sentenced to capital punishment. Resurrected three days after his death, he lived for 40 days more and completed his work of redeeming the world."

In his work, Lee also describes the Vatican and the pope in glowing terms, trying to compare the pontiff's "noble spiritual power" to the earthly powers exercised by Asian dynasties. He also emphasised the need to separate state and church.

His works represents the proto-catechism of Korea's Catholics. Although it is unclear whether Lee converted, it is certain that he did not die a martyr. Yet his wisdom and love of letters made him one of the most respected scholars during the Joseon Kingdom.

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