South Korea – the land of rich traditional culture, refreshing Kimchi, addictive seaweed, and home to one of my favourite shows, Running Man. I was first exposed to anything Korean back in Winter Sonata days where its sentimental piano music drifts you away into melancholy. So when I found out about the pilgrimage to South Korea, it was an easy yes and I was all in. To immerse myself in Korean culture and go on a faith-learning experience? What have I got to lose? But I had not the faintest idea why South Korea could be a place for pilgrimage. I have often heard of Holy Land and Rome being places for pilgrimages. But South Korea? I had no clue. Yet it was one of the most life-changing moments for me.
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”, these words from Tertullian reflect the growth of the Church thanks to the beauty of martyrdom. In God’s mysterious providence, the unique history of Catholicism in Korea began with the local lay faithful rather than with foreign cleric or religious missionaries. Many of these lay faithful were martyred for their faith during the 100-year persecution in the 18th and 19th centuries. These martyrs, by being witnesses to the power of God’s love, bore a victory that continues to bear fruit today in Korea, to which the Church received growth from their sacrifice. This was highlighted by Pope Francis in his homily during the 6th Asian Youth Day and was also the very intention of starting the Asian Church Series organised by the Splendour Team.
What made Catholicism thrive even under grave persecution for a prolonged period? What inspired these people to so willingly embrace the Faith especially at the face of torture and death?
One such story that struck me was when we were at Chon Jin Am, the birthplace of Catholicism in Korea. The priest who hosted us, related a story of one of the martyrs, Jeong Yak Jong (Augustinus) while we were before the tombs of a few martyrs. When Augustinus/Jeong was about to be beheaded, he said “I’d rather die looking up at the sky than to die looking down at the ground.” He had a peaceful face waiting for the execution. Out of guilt, the executer closed his eyes and swung his sword. It lacked precision and left Jeong’s head decapitated halfway. Jeong assured the executer that it was better to kill him swiftly and that action pursued.
This was the nature of the Catholics in Korea. Their fervour in the Christian faith is as such that they would not renounce their Faith even at times of great oppression. More so, they would die for the Faith looking forward to the kingdom of heaven. Saint Kim Tae-gon Andrew made a farewell sermon before his beheading saying “My eternal life is beginning now,” and he calmly and courageously received from God the glorious crown of martyrdom.
The persecutions in 1801, 1839, 1846 and 1866 led to the death of about 10,000 martyrs. Among those who died martyrs were a considerable number of outstanding lay leaders. Pope Francis, in his homily during the 6th Asian Youth Day says it beautifully: “This history tells us much about the importance, the dignity and the beauty of the vocation of the laity.” Korea now boasts the 4th largest number of saints in the Catholic Church and currently 10% of the country’s population are Catholics (about 5.1 million recorded in 2010!).
To say that this pilgrimage is impactful is an understatement. It was life-changing. Often, we may think that the religious have more effect and influence in transmitting our Faith. But the history of Catholicism in Korea proves otherwise. The Laity are equally important in shaping the life of the Church. Who else could go to your own workplace to be a witness of God’s love? Our priests surely cannot do that. We as the Laity need to begin by discovering what the Gospel demands of us by virtue of our baptism and confirmation. The life of martyrdom by death may not be for everyone, but discipleship comes at a cost that requires martyrdom by life. To be a martyr, in a more general sense, simply means being a witness for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I believe I speak on behalf of the pilgrims to say that we are inspired to live our lives intentionally as effective and sacrificial witnesses of the Christian faith.
There will be a pilgrimage to Korea from 7 -14 March 2018. Find out more here!
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Jennifer is an engineer by day, daydreamer by night. Fatally attracted to bunnies, orange and nuggets (especially the chicken type). And occasionally chocolates. Everyday is an occasion.