The Catholic Bishops Conference of Korea this week formally closed the diocesan investigation into the cause of beatification of the late Bishop Francis Hong Yong-ho of Pyongyang and of 80 other “martyrs” who died during the Korean War from 1950 to 1953.
A cause of beatification is part of the formal process by which a person may be named a saint or martyr in the Catholic Church.
Bishop Hong was imprisoned by North Korean forces in 1949 with 49 priests, seven religious, and 25 lay people who were also reportedly tortured and killed. The prelate was never seen since then.
Earlier this year, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission report said more than 1,100 Christians died for their faith in the hands of North Korean forces during the war.
The commission reported that at least 1,145 Christians, including 119 Catholics and 1,026 Protestants, died during their retreat from the South following military operations in 1950
As early as 2008, the bishops of Korea had had expressed their intention to ask for the recognition of the martyrdom of the “witnesses of the faith.”
In 2014, the Vatican accepted Bishop Hong as a “Servant of God,” the first stage of his possible canonization, making him the first candidate for sainthood from North Korea.
The Archdiocese of Seoul has since collected all evidence available and translated these into English. The evidence and papers were all sealed in special boxes and were presented during a ceremony on June 7 before shipment to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in the Vatican.
“Bishop Hong and his companions are different figures from the martyrs of the era of persecution 200 years ago,” said Archbishop Peter Chung Soon-taick of Seoul.
“They are people who shared the history of the twentieth century with us, they are really part of our lives. They gave their lives to bear witness to what matters,” he said.
“In the harsh reality that we are still living in a divided country where the division between North and South and ideological conflicts continue, I sincerely hope that the promotion of the beatification of these martyrs will serve as a foundation for promoting reconciliation and unity,” said Bishop Mathias Ri Iong-hoon of Suwon, president of the Korean Bishops’ Conference.
Bishop Hong was born in 1906 and ordained a priest in 1933 when Korea was under Japanese occupation. He was ordained a bishop in 1944 to lead the Apostolic Vicariate of Pyongyang.
On March 10, 1962, Pope John XXIII decided to raise the vicariate of Pyongyang to the rank of diocese and appointed Bishop Hong, who was then missing, as its head, thus becoming a symbol of the persecution against Catholics in the country.
Of the candidates for sainthood, 49 were from the Archdiocese of Seoul, while others came from the dioceses of Gwangju, Jeju, Suwon, Incheon and Chuncheon. The list also includes the former apostolic delegate to Korea, Monsignor Patrick James Byrne, a Maryknoll missionary.
Korea was a unified nation and ruled for centuries by the staunchly Buddhist Joseon dynasty (1392-1897). It became a protectorate of Japan through the Korea-Japan Eulsa Treaty in 1905 following Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War that same year.
Japan’s imperial rule (1905-45) ended after World War II, leading to bifurcation of Korea into two by the United States and the Soviet Union. Several efforts to unify Korea failed over disagreements between the US and Soviet regimes and resulted in the Korean War (1950-53).
North Korean communist forces invaded the South during the war and brutal conflict left some 4 million dead and about 10 million families displaced.
The war came to end with an armistice, not a war treaty, on July 27, 1953. It means the nations are technically still at war.