Catholicism and Korea


My dad always likes to tell people about the time a cardinal came to our parish in Cambridge. I was just a baby so I couldn’t possibly remember, but apparently my dad gave me to the cardinal and asked for him to bless me, promising that I would become a priest one day. And ever since then, he has always been telling me and everyone else that I would become a priest. It has gone from being funny, to annoying, to me threatening to destroy every crucifix, angel, and Virgin Mary in our house, to being sort of funny/annoying again. It’s simultaneously the least Asian parent thing to do (giving up material wealth and glory) and the most Asian thing to do (guaranteeing eternal salvation for my family, which I don’t think is technically even correct but I’m not an expert). Even now, when I’m in law school, he insists that it’s all part of the plan, and I can become a lawyer in the Vatican. Which would be a great conversation starter, I guess (“So what are you planning on practicing? Corporate? Litigation?” “Ecclesiastical law.” ““I’m sorry, what?”), but I think I’ll pass. I like being Catholic, but not THAT much.

Maybe it’s because my entire family is Roman Catholic, but I’ve never thought of Catholics as a religious minority or anywhere else, really. After all, aren’t there like a billion of us out in the world? But the truth is, Catholics make up about 10.4% of the population here in Korea, or about 5.4 million people. Sure, there are prominent Catholic figures everywhere in Korea, figure skating legend Kim Yuna, former president and Nobel laureate Kim Dae-jung, the current president Park Geun-hye (apparently), but it’s not like South Korea is fervently Roman Catholic. Which makes it fascinating that Pope Francis, who is making a strong bid to unseat the Dalai Lama as the world’s favorite religious leader, has decided to make South Korea his first visit to Asia, the first papal visit to East Asia in 25 years. After all, the Philippines might have been a better choice in terms of population, since they have more Catholics than the two Koreas have people. But he chose Korea. As did Pope Saint John Paul II, who visited twice, once in 1984 and five years later in 1989. So why Korea?

The history of Catholicism, or Cheonjugyo (“Religion of the Lord of Heaven”) as it is called, in Korea is in many ways the same story as in other Catholic countries. People started following the faith, the ruling class saw the beliefs of equality and whatnot as a threat to the status quo, cue lots and lots of persecution, lots of martyrs. In fact, one of the holy sites in Seoul is a mountain called Jeoldu-san, or literally “beheading mountain” because of the many beheadings held there in the 1860s. And later when the church was formally recognized as an institution it became a force for democratization during the military dictatorship period. You know, the usual. But what makes the Korean Church stand apart from other churches, particularly in Asia, is that as Pope Saint John Paul II said at the canonization of 103 Korean Martyrs in 1984, “it was founded entirely by lay people.”

What does that mean? It means the Catholic Church began in Korea and started spreading without a single missionary in the country. As many people know, religion is usually spread by missionaries who go to countries and give out bibles and preach and whatnot, it doesn’t spring up almost spontaneously. Except that’s what happened in Korea. Koreans were exposed to Catholicism in neighboring countries like China and Japan, where Jesuit priests were present and proselytizing, and without anyone prompting them to, decided to bring it back home. The first people to introduce Catholicism to Korea were scholars and diplomats to China around the year 1600 like Yi Su-gwang, who was introduced to Catholicism and Western ideas by Italian Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci, and Heo Gyun, who is credited with writing the Korean classic the Tales of Hong Gildong and brought back a book of Catholic prayers. At the time Korean higher society was dominated by neo-Confucianism, which was an increasingly out-of-touch philosophy that emphasized a rigid hierarchy and ritual more than actual human society, and so progressive scholars found the ideas of equality in Catholicism and Western philosophy extremely attractive, giving birth to the school of thought known as silhak, or “practical learning.” However, at the time Catholicism was seen more as a compelling philosophy than an actual religion. 

Not to say that there weren’t any Korean Catholics at the time, of course. Although some consider Heo Gyun to be the first Korean Catholic, technically he was never baptized so I can’t say that he was a Catholic in terms of Catholic canon law. Maybe in spirit, but not legally. The first Korean Catholics weren’t baptized in Korea, and probably never returned to Korea. These were people who were taken away as laborers during the Japanese invasion of 1592. Although there isn’t much known about how many there were, what is known is that among the 205 Martyrs of Japan beatified by Pope Pius IX in 1867, 10 were Korean. Most notable was Caius (or Gaius) of Korea, who converted to Catholicism, worked in the Philippines for a samurai exiled for his Catholic faith (which is fascinating in and of itself), returned to help the missionaries preach to other Koreans taken by the Japanese, and then was burned at the stake for his faith in 1624. But since these Catholics didn’t go back to Korea, I guess they’re technically Korean and Catholic, but not Korean Catholic.

Although Catholic ideas started spreading in the early 1600s, Catholicism as a religion didn’t start in earnest until about 150 years later. Yi Seunghun, a member of the ruling yangban class, became the first Korean convert to Catholicism when he was baptized in Beijing in 1784. Upon returning to Korea with books, crucifixes, and other Catholic swag, he set upon evangelizing to his fellow nobles and started unofficially baptizing them. Although there were no officially ordained priests in Korea until the arrival of Chinese priest Zhu Wenmiao in 1795, these nobles continued to gather in secret and by the time an actual priest had arrived on the scene, there were more than 4,000 converts to Catholicism. All this while the religion was seen as subversive to the state ideology of neo-Confucianism because it eschewed traditional rituals and the established hierarchy, and was persecuted on and off until 1801, when the Sinyu Persecution saw the execution of over 300 Catholics including Yi Seunghun and Zhu Wenmiao. The church went underground for several decades, during which it continued to flourish. When members of the Paris Foreign Missions Society entered Korea in 1836 to spread the gospel, they were probably surprised to find that the country already had practicing Catholics. Several other persecutions followed, in 1839 (Kihae), 1846 (Pyongo), and 1866 (Pyongin). The first Korean priest, Saint Kim Taegon Andrea, was ordained in Shanghai in 1844 and returned to Korea in 1845, only to lose his life in 1846. Despite these setbacks and persecutions that lasted even into the 20th century (the last major persecution happened in 1901), by 1941, well into the Japanese occupation, there were an estimated 180,000 Catholics in Korea and 9 dioceses.

In the 20th century, there were several milestones achieved by the Catholic Church in Korea. In 1942 Roh Gi-nam became the first Korean bishop, and in 1969 Kim Sou-hwan became the first Korean cardinal, followed by Cardinal Cheong Jin-suk in 2006, and Cardinal Yeom Soo-jung in 2014. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Catholic Church and Cardinal Kim in particular became fierce critics of of the authoritarian regime and their human rights abuses. In particular, they provided a safe haven pro-democracy protesters within Myeongdong Cathedral, as the military authorities were reluctant to force entry into a church. And in 1984, Pope Saint John Paul II canonized 103 martyrs, giving Korea the 4th most Catholic saints in the world. Perhaps because of this, or because the Church just seemed like a nice place with nice people who did nice things, membership exploded in the mid 1990s to early 2000s, when the number of Catholics increased by more than 70 percent in just ten years. 

To the outside observer, the continued success of the Catholic Church in Korea despite centuries of persecution and competition from better funded, numerically superior Protestant missionaries might seem nothing short of miraculous. To think that there were a large number of people willing to die for this faith well before any  missionaries started thinking that Korea might be a good place to start spreading Christianity, now that is unheard of. Korean Catholics basically out-Catholicked other Catholics at that time, and they had absolutely no reason to do so. But the story of Koreans adopting something from a different culture and somehow doing it even better has been repeated so many times throughout Korea’s history that I can’t help but think that there’s some je ne sais quoi at work here. Whatever it is, I’m sure it is the driving force behind the success of Catholicism in Korea, as it is the reason why there are so many Koreans at the top American schools, and the reason why Maroon 5’s favorite place to perform is Korea. I guess I’ll have to figure it out.


One thought on “Catholicism and Korea

  1. “God works in mysterious ways” I believe is the term. Thank you for your article I never understood how Koreans were introduced to Christianity till I read this. I’m not sure but I think Ethiopia might have a similar back story, I think coming through the Eunuch that was reading his bible while on a trip and one of the apostles appeared to him to ask if he understood what he was reading, Acts 8:26-39.
    Anyway really nice and informative write up.

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