South Korea’s millions-strong Catholic community has been commemorating the numerous unknown martyrs who gave their lives for their faith in the 1800s.
Masses have been held throughout the country, along with pilgrimages, exhibitions and a play during Martyrs’ Month, held every September to remember those who died.
This year marks the 180th anniversary of the Kihae Persecution in 1839, one of the harshest persecutions of the Joseon Dynasty.
As many as 10,000 early Catholics were martyred in the 1800s for their faith before religious freedom was recognized in the country in 1886.
Pope St. John Paul II conferred sainthood on 103 of the martyrs who helped spread the religion, at a ceremony in 1984 during a visit to Korea.
It was the single largest number of saints created on one occasion. Another 134 Koreans were beatified by Pope Francis in 2014.
A play was staged this year to honor St. Paul Chung Ha-sang who was tortured and killed in 1839 after helping to spread Catholicism. He wrote numerous letters to the Vatican urging it to send a priest and set up a diocese.
During a special Mass in September, the archbishop of Seoul told the faithful they should be proud of the unique history of Catholicism in Korea.
“The fact that Korean Catholics spontaneously accepted Catholicism first and witnessed their faith throughout the persecutions and martyrdom for more than 100 years are without example in history,” Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung said.
“So, we have to realize and be proud that our faith is firmly rooted in this history.”
Korea is the only nation to which Catholicism came without priests or missionaries. A baptized man returned from China bringing books on Catholicism, regarded as the coming of the Church to Korea. Priests arrived years later.
Today’s Korean Church has almost six million faithful, 12,000 religious and 6,000 priests.