On May 6, 1984, Pope John Paul II canonized the Koreans who were martyred for their faith in the 19th century.
Christianity entered Korea via a Korean. In 1603, Yi Gwang-jeong, a Korean diplomat, returned to Korea from China with books of theology written by Matteo Ricci, SJ, the renowned missionary to China. He began to spread the information until Catholicism was outlawed in 1758. Later in 1785 Yi Seung-hun began evangelizing in Korea following his return from a visit to China. Yi Seung-hun is the first Korean known to be baptized (while in China) and, taking the name “Peter”, is therefore also known as Peter Yi, or Peter Li.
Peter Li was martyred, along with more than 300 others, in 1801. Persecution continued until it culminated in the Catholic Persecution of 1866, when 8,000 were killed across Korea.
Catholicism flourished when Korea was open to the outside world in the late 1800s. In the mid 20th century, the number of converts raised at a dramatic rate. In the last 10 years alone the number of Catholics have grown by 70%. While Protestantism is still strong, it has declined in numbers over the same time period.
As reported in recent articles by Sandro Magister and Piero Gheddo, the Catholic Church in Korea is the fastest growing in all of Asia. The growth is the most sustained as well.
“Over the past ten years, the Catholic Church in Korea has gone from three to five million faithful; in Seoul we are 14 percent,” Cardinal Nicholas Cheong Jin-suk, archbishop of Seoul, has said in an interview.
All of this growth is begging for an explanation. How is this happening while in Europe and the US the Church seems to be losing more than it’s gaining?
The Catholic Church in South Korea is the one that is growing most vigorously in Asia. There is full religious freedom in South Korea, and the secretary of the Korean episcopal conference, Bishop Simon E. Chen, told me that Koreans demonstrate a strong propensity for Christianity, because it introduces the idea of the equality of all human beings created by the one God. Moreover, both Catholics and Protestants participated in the popular movement against the military dictatorship, between 1961 and 1987, while Confucianism and Buddhism promote obedience to the established authority. Also, Christianity is the religion of a personal God made man to save us, while shamanism, Buddhism, and Confucianism are not even religions, but systems of human wisdom and of life. Finally, after the war between North and South Korea (1950 to 1953), South Korea, thanks to American aid, saw extremely rapid economic, social, and civil development, becoming in every way an advanced and even rich country, in which the ancient religions do not provide answers to the problems of modern life.
One possible reason might be found in this character trait of the Korean Church:
Today in Korea, someone who converts knows that he must join one of the groups, associations, or movements of the parish. The “passive” Catholic is not recognized. In Seoul, where there are more than 200 parishes, I was in the parish of the Salesians of Kuro 3-Dong, in a working class area on the outskirts of the city. The Catholics, already in 1986, were 9,537 out of about 150,000 inhabitants, and there were almost 600 baptisms of adult converts each year.
So for this month of May, Korea has much to offer the rest of the Catholic Church. It seems that the martyrs of Korea have given us much more than even they could have imagined.
Korea serves as an inspiration and beacon of hope for us all.