Wednesday, September 20, 2023

The Birth of the Church in Korea

Today is the feast of the 103 Korean martyrs canonized by John Paul II in 1984. The remarkable story of the beginnings of Christianity in Korea—along with an account of the conversion of one of them, Saint Mareuko Jeong (in older transliterations “Mark Chong”)—appears in my column in this month’s Magnificat. Here is the text:

Saint Mareuko Jeong Eui-Bae is one of the 103 Korean martyrs whose feast we celebrate on September 20. He is among some 10,000 Koreans who gave their lives for Christ during multiple fierce persecutions in the mid-19th century. Most were ordinary lay men and women, but some were also from the educated classes and the nobility. We know enough about the high-ranking nobleman/scholar Mareuko Jeong to appreciate the particular drama of his conversion.

Korean cultural life flourished for many centuries, creatively appropriating ancient Chinese literary and religious traditions into its own independent society. But by the end of the 18th century, the 500-year-old Joseon dynasty was in deep decline, and dependent on Qing-dynasty China. Meanwhile, the Joseon Neo-Confucian State had become a religious/political structure of rigid social hierarchy, with the monarch at the center, followed by the noble and scholarly classes, and with many of the common people reduced to a status of virtual slavery.

It was the scholar-officials who began searching for ways to reform this ossified society. In frequent diplomatic trips to Beijing, they met “Westeners” (including Catholic priests) and obtained books on developments in Western science, technology, philosophy, and religion translated into Chinese. Thus arose the “Sohak” movement—groups of scholars who studied “Western learning” and discussed its possible value for reforming Korean society. For most, it was mainly an intellectual examination of various Western ideas, but a few were drawn specifically to the Catholic faith. Yi Sung-hun was baptized in Beijing in 1784, returned to Korea, and baptized a few of his compatriots. By the time the first priest arrived in 1795 there were 4000 baptized lay Catholics waiting for him.

There was also aggressive opposition to the new teaching. The Joseon royal house and their Neo-Confucian supporters viewed Christianity as a threat to the Korean social order. Worship of One God in Jesus Christ undermined the religious/superstitious system of rites offered for the monarch and the hierarchical continuity of clan and family. Christianity preached that God was the Father of all people, who were brothers and sisters with a common destiny in Christ regardless of their origins and social status. Among the scholars who abhorred the new Christian teaching was (Mareuko) Jeong Eui-Bae.

Born in 1794, Jeong was an established professor of Chinese literature and defender of the status quo when persecution broke out in 1839. By that time the French Foreign Mission Society had sent a bishop and two priests to Korea. In 1839, Jeong Eui-Bae witnessed the brutal mutilation and execution of Bishop Laurentius Imbert, Father Peter Maubant, and Father Jakob Chastan. (They are also among the 103 martyred saints.)

The 47-year-old scholar had seen death many times. But in these three men Jeong saw something completely new: an astonishing joy in the face of torture and death. Jeong was growing old in a society where death was covered with shadows. His studies gave no hint as to how to face death, much less to embrace it with the joy he saw on the faces of those missionaries that day.

Disregarding his honorable station, Jeong obtained and read forbidden Christian books and met the people who believed in the One written about in those books. Glimpsing there the Source of hitherto unknown joy and hope, the long-cynical old professor was totally converted. He was baptized Mareuko (Mark) and devoted his newfound zeal and intellectual skills to working as a catechist and caring for the sick. The poor humble people whom the former aristocrat had once scorned he now served with love until his own martyrdom in 1866, at age 72.