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from issue no. 03 - 2006

A brief history of the Catholic Church in Korea

A country evangelized without foreign missionaries

by Cardinal Nicholas Cheong Jinsuk

Korean pilgrims in Saint Peter’s Square on the occasion 
of the Consistory of 24 March 2006

Korean pilgrims in Saint Peter’s Square on the occasion of the Consistory of 24 March 2006

The Korean Church is relatively young. The history of the Korean Church goes back about 222 years, when a group of young scholars came across Catholicism. As they were studying Western literatures, they were looking for a new idea capable of bringing about change in the Korean society of the time. Their study, which was, at the beginning, only curiosity about a new theory, changed by the grace of God into faith as they continued to think and rethink what they were studying. They learned a great deal of Catholic doctrine from books, studying on their own. After coming to an understanding of the importance of baptism, they sent one of them to Peking, in China, to get baptized. To explain more precisely: in the year 1784 one of them, Lee Seung Hun, was sent to Peking where he was baptized with the name of Peter. Then he came back to Korea and baptized his colleagues. That was the beginning of the Korean Church. Korea, in fact, was evangelized not by foreign missionaries, but only by Korean laymen. The Korean Church started in an unusual, unique way. Nothing like it can be found in the history of the Catholic Church. The active efforts of the Korean laity of the beginnings became the mode of action of the Korean Church today.
The Korean Church at the start of evangelization was much persecuted by the government, because at that time the State religion was Confucianism. The persecution lasted for about a hundred years and there were more than ten thousand martyrs. As one can understand, at that time there was no freedom of religion. Freedom of religion was gained after the treaty between Korea and France in 1886, a hundred and twenty years ago. But the freedom didn’t last long, because in 1910 Korea was invaded by Japan and remained dominated for thirty-five years. During that time, the Korean Church lived under the firm control and surveillance of the Japanese government. Korea regained its liberty in 1945, when the Second World War ended.
The freedom brought by independence, however, had a very sad outcome. Korea, by the decision of the United States of America and the Soviet Union, was split in two: South and North. The pain from the division of a people, who had always been united, greatly influenced the destiny of the Korean Church. When Korea was divided, in the South there were about one hundred thousand Catholics in around a hundred parishes, while in the North there were about fifty-five thousand, in around fifty parishes. Thus two thirds of the total was in the South and a third in the North. The communist regime, however, that then began to govern North Korea, opposed the Church with force. Of the 166 priests and religious present in those times in the North, nothing more is known today: we don’t know whether they are alive. Now not even one parish exists in the North: no priest and no nun. And we don’t even know how many Catholics there are, even if it is said that there are some thousand or three thousand. In a word, the North Korean Church has become a “Church of silence”.
Meanwhile, the Church in South Korea, through the grace of the Lord, continues to progress. Catholics in South Korea now number around four and a half million, divided into sixteen diocese. That means that nine percent of the population is Catholic. We are fewer than the Buddhists and the Protestants. But we are in the third place among the countries of South Asia, after the Philippines and Vietnam. So the Korean Church has by now grown a lot and is in the front line in the evangelization of Asia. One of the methods in the evangelization of Asia consists in training seminarians coming from China, from Vietnam and from Bangladesh. This method is used particularly by the archdiocese of Seoul. In addition many Korean missionaries are to be found in the countries of Southeast Asia, in Africa, in Mongolia and in China.

(from the sermon given by Cardinal Nicholas Cheong Jinsuk during the mass celebrated on Sunday 26 March 2006 in the parish of his presbyterial title, Santa Maria Immaculata di Lourdes in Boccea)

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