“Lay people were the first apostles of Korea,” Pope Francis said in his homily at mass in Seoul after beatifying 124 martyrs from the infancy period of the church in “the land of the morning calm.”
“All of them lived and died for Christ, and now they reign with him in joy and in glory,” he told the 800,000 people at the ceremony in front of Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Gate, a place closely linked to the past and recent history of this country. The place is not far from the site where many martyrs were executed and which he visited before mass.
All but one of this group of 124 martyrs, led by Paul Yun Ji-chung, were lay people; it included 100 men and 24 women; the oldest was a 75 year old man, the youngest a girl of 12.
The exception was Father James Ju Mun-mo, a Chinese priest from the Beijing diocese. He was the first priest to enter Korea, and came to serve the young Christian community that was born in 1784. By the time he arrived, ten years later, the community had 4,000 members.
The beatification ceremony, attended by cardinals and bishops from at least 20 Asian countries under a merciless sun and high humidity, was the highpoint of the pope’s visit here for Korea’s 5.4 million Catholics in this country of 50 million people.
“These martyrs are our ancestors. They died rather than sell out the faith, and we are so proud and happy that Pope Francis is beatifying them,” Benedictus Lee, a 50 year old manager in a hi-tech company told me before the ceremony began.
For him, and indeed for all Korean Catholics, this was a truly historical moment, one which they participated in a deeply prayerful and impressive way. They reacted with awe and uttered a highly audible gasp when an image on the 124 new blessed was flashed on the maxi-TV screens at either side of the altar, immediately after the pope declared them blessed.
Throughout his visit here, Pope Francis has returned time and again to the martyrs. He did so with the Korean bishops on his first day here, and also yesterday in his extraordinarily successful meeting with 4,000 young Catholics from 27 Asian countries at the shrine of Solome, the birthplace of Saint Andrew Kim Taegon, the first Korean priest.
In actual fact, “the Holy Father is very moved by the fact of martyrdom in the history of the Church and also today. It is something that he is reflecting profoundly on,” the Director of the Vatican Press Office, Fr Federico Lombardi revealed at a press briefing here.
The historical record shows that Christians have been persecuted in all of East Asia in past centuries, not just in Korea but also in Japan, Vietnam and China too. “The martyrdom of Christians in Korea and Japan is a very moving and amazing story,” Fr Gianni Criviller, a member of PIME—an Italian missionary order, who lives in Hong Kong and who knows this area of the world and its history well, told me. But the numbers “were particularly high” in Korea, he added.
In actual fact, 10,000 Christians were martyred in Korea; the overwhelming majority of them were laypeople, men women and even children. At times, whole communities were executed, together with their priests.
At today’s beatification ceremony, Pope Francis highlighted the fact that “In God’s mysterious providence, the Christian faith was not brought to the shores of Korea through missionaries; rather, it entered through the hearts and minds of the Korean people themselves. It was prompted by intellectual curiosity, the search for religious truth. Through an initial encounter with the Gospel, the first Korean Christians opened their minds to Jesus” and “this led to a missionary outreach,” and martyrdom.
“This fact tells us much about the importance, the dignity and the beauty of the vocation of the laity”, the pope added. It was a significant remark at a general level, but in the Korean context it was also a sharp reminder to the local church, which many sources say has become rather clericalized, to return to its origins.
He made the same point quite forcefully in his talk to the Korean bishops on his first day here. Speaking of the need to be “guardians of memory,” he told them, “Our memory of the martyrs and past generations of Christians must be one that is realistic, not idealized or ‘triumphalist.' Looking to the past without hearing God’s call to conversion in the present will not help us move forwards; instead, it will only hold us back and even halt our spiritual progress.”
Today, in his homily, he reminded Korean Catholics that soon after they were baptized this first generation of martyrs “had to choose between following Jesus or the world.” At the decisive moment, they showed that “they were willing to make great sacrifices and let themselves be stripped of whatever kept them from Christ—possession and land, prestige and honor—for they knew that Christ alone was their true treasure,” he said. They knew “the cost of discipleship.”
Often today, the pope said, “we too can find our faith challenged by the world, and in countless ways we are asked to compromise our faith, to water down the radical demands of the Gospel and to conform to the spirit of this age.” In this context, he said, “the martyrs call out to us to put Christ first and to see all else in this world in relation to him and his eternal Kingdom. They challenge us to think about what, if anything, we ourselves would be willing to die for.”
It is clear from the talks he has given in these first three days here that Pope Francis is concerned that the Korean Church, in spite of its phenomenal growth and its missionary achievements, runs the risk of being a rather rich, self-complacent church, not sufficiently concerned for the poor, the suffering and those on the peripheries of life, those whom he calls “the flesh of Christ.”
He wishes to move them on to a more profoundly spiritual path and so today, in his homily, he reminded Korean Catholics that the martyrs teach us “the importance of charity in the life of faith.” He recalled “their refusal to separate the twin commandment of love of God and love of neighbor,” and said, “their example has much to say to us who live in societies where, alongside immense wealth, dire poverty is silently growing; where the cry of the poor is seldom heeded; and where Christ continues to call out to us, asking us to love and serve him by tending to our brothers and sisters in need.”
He concluded by strongly encouraging them to follow “the lead of the martyrs” and to embrace “their legacy” which “can inspire all men and women of good will to work in harmony for a more just, free and reconciled society, thus contributing to peace and the protection of authentically human values in this country and in our world.”