In 1984 Pope John Paul II canonized 103 men, women and children who were among 8000 Korean Catholics who were put to death rather than give up their faith.
For hundreds of years Korea had been known as the Hermit Kingdom, having earned that name by not permitting anyone to come into or go out of their country. There was no mixing with foreigners. Their one foreign tie consisted in a yearly delegation that carried tribute to the Chinese emperor in Beijing.
While that yearly delegation was spending the winter of 1775-1776 in Beijing, its members took to reading books on Catholicism that had been written a hundred years earlier by the Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci, an amazing scholar who had served as tutor to the emperor’s children. A number of that Korean delegation were baptized, and they brought Catholicism back to Seoul. For the fifteen years before a Chinese Catholic priest came to them, they were like children playing religion. They ordained each other priests, and they made attempts at saying Mass.
Fifty years later Korea got its fist native born priest. St. Andrew Kim was trained in Shanghai, and he was sneaked into Korea in 1844. He was landed on the east coast together with a French bishop and a French priest. (I came ashore as the French priest in a 1959 movie made of that landing.)
Father Andrew Kim along with all the others who embraced the foreign religion of Catholicism were beheaded in mass executions on the bank of the Han River. When Protestant missionaries used influence to open Korea to them in the 1880’s the persecution of Catholics came to an end. Catholics are referred to as the old Christians.
Today Catholics Koreans are held in high regard because of the role they played in fighting for independence. The Korean hero of the 1940’s, President Syngman Rhee, became their dictator in the 1950’s. After his regime was overthrown by a students’ revolution in 1959, the first popularly elected president was the Catholic John Chang. As a young man John had composed a Korean adaption of Cardinal Gibbon’s Faith of Our Fathers. Today Catholics make up almlost eleven percent of Korea’s population.