Day: September 22nd
Before we get to the 1780s, let us first turn back to the 1980s. Pope St. John Paul II, two weeks after Easter in 1989, touched down in Fairbanks, Alaska to refuel before continuing his red-eye flight to Seoul, South Korea (believe it or not, he had already visited Alaska in 1981!) He would celebrate the first canonization Mass outside of Rome there in Seoul a few days later, to proclaim as saints 103 of the Christians martyred there in the 18th and 19th centuries. Of the group, the namesake and leader was Fr. Andrew Kim Taegŏn, but the second person always mentioned is that of Paul Chŏng Hasang, a layman, like most of the rest of those martyred. The Great Pope would stop a few more times before returning to Rome (a 23,000-mile journey, the third-longest of his entire pontificate), but let us remain there in Seoul for a moment.
200 years before John Paul’s Alitalia jet touched down on the Korean peninsula, Christianity first arrived there in far less grandiose style. A few intrepid lay men and women smuggled books and crucifixes back to Korea from China, where they had first met Jesus through the priests working there. The scholars and sophisticated of Korea immediately rejected this new faith – down through history Christianity has always been a scandal and laughingstock to the affluent and self-sufficient – but it slowly took hold in simpler, humbler, hearts.
Jeong Yak-jong, newly baptized as Augustine Chong, was one of those bold souls carrying Christ across the Han river. For seven years, Augustine would pass on the faith to his family and friends, eventually writing the first catechism in the Korean language, all of this before the first priest arrived. There would be four thousand Christians, by then enduring persecution, in Korea when the first Chinese priest managed to arrive there. In return for his efforts, this father and missionary received the gift of martyrdom from His heavenly Lord, staying faithful when many of his fellow Christians repudiated their faith in the face of those tortures. His last words, and a fitting last message to his 7 year old son was “I would never regret [having become a Christian] even if I had to die a thousand times.” Paul would learn that lesson well, risking his own life to guide priests across the Han river, until at the age of 45 he was captured, and enduring in his faith through tortures, was faithful until death.
During the same persecution in 1839, another Christian by the name of Ignatius Kim was also killed. His son Andrew, the generation after Paul, and two generations after Christianity had first arrived in Korea through Augustine and his compatriots, would become the first native-born priest from Korea. At the age of 15, this young man traveled 1300 miles to go to seminary in Macao, China (making his father’s trek of 750 miles to Beijing look easy!), before making the arduous journey back to his homeland to bring them the sacraments of the Church. At this time, still, only a few foreign priests and one bishop (from France) had managed to make their way into the country, so the graces Andrew Kim could carry back were incalculable. He was captured after 13 months of priestly ministry, and murdered with 20 others in 1846. In his final letter, he said this:
We are twenty here, and thanks be to God all are still well. If anyone is killed, I beg you not to forget his family. I have many more things to say, but how can I express them with pen and paper? I make an end to this letter. Since we are now close to the struggle, I pray you to walk in faith, so that when you have finally entered into Heaven, we may greet one another. I leave you my kiss of love.
We would be well to never forget our families either! From the 72 disciples of Jesus, to the 103 we celebrate this week, to our own day, Christianity has always been passed on more by lay people, and families, than by priests and religious. How can we cherish, carry, and communicate our own relationship with Christ this week?
– Fr. Dominic was not born in 1789, nor 1989, so he has no memories from either era. But, isn’t it interesting to realize that as Augustine made his first midnight mission carrying Christ back to Korea from China, the U.S. Constitution had just gone into effect in our country, and George Washington had been unanimously (I believe the only time that happened) elected our first president? And, as Pope John Paul landed in Korea in April of 1989, it was only a few weeks before the Tiananmen Square demonstrations would happen in China, and a few months before the fall of Berlin Wall in the USSR?