The feast of the Korean Martyrs is one of those liturgical celebrations that tends to make little impact on me. I don’t know many Koreans, and my knowledge of Korean history, especially Korean Church history, is sketchy; but there is one fact I do recall and about which I think we would all do well to reflect. The history of Christianity in Korea is largely the history of a lay initiative. We don’t know when the first Koreans became Christians, but it was probably in the seventeenth century. There were no priests that we know of. In the eighteenth century there are records of persecution, with an estimated ten thousand men, women and children executed for refusing to perform the usual sacrifices on the death of family members or otherwise failing to observe the usual customs.The first priest of whom we have definite note was, I believe, a Frenchman, who entered the country in 1836 and was beheaded three years later. The first Korean priest was Andrew Kim Taegǒn, who trained secretly in Macao, went back to Korea in 1845 and was martyred in 1846. As Pope St John Paul II remarked when he canonised the Korean Martyrs in 1984,
The Korean Church is unique because it was founded entirely by laypeople. This fledgling Church, so young and yet so strong in faith, withstood wave after wave of fierce persecution. Thus, in less than a century, it could boast of 10,000 martyrs. The death of these many martyrs became the leaven of the Church and led to today’s splendid flowering of the Church in Korea. Even today their undying spirit sustains the Christians of the Church of Silence in the north of this tragically divided land.
We are familiar with the story of the fidelity of lay Christians in many parts of the world — the Nagasaki Christians, for example — but I wonder how often we take to heart the lesson they provide. It is not merely their obvious love of the Lord, their courage and fidelity, that we applaud. There is something chastening (in a good sense) about the way in which they constitute the Church. At present, when many Catholics are expressing anger and disappointment at the way in which bishops and clergy have often failed to get to grips with the evil of abuse, the history of the Korean Church is a stark reminder of the role of the laity and the responsibility we all have for the Church’s growth in number and holiness. We do not abandon the Church because she is not all we should like her to be. We stay and work to ensure that she becomes what the Lord desires she should be — and that applies to all of us, whether we be bishops, priests, laity or religious. We all have a part to play, and though our roles differ, none can be regarded as ‘secondary’ or ‘unimportant’. The feast of the Korean Martyrs is a reminder to laypeople of the greatness of the lay vocation, a gentle warning to bishops and clergy that the power of ruling is not the only one to be valued in the Church, and an encouragement to us all that grace will be given in time of need. Thank God for that.