Yes, you read that right. While most people outside the Middle East have adopted the Christian faith due to missionary work, there is one nation that did not need missionaries.
Thanks to a personal interest in South Korea that has developed over the last two years, I have begun eating Korean food, enjoying music and art from the country, learning its language, and exploring Korean history. The story of Christianity in Korea is both fascinating and inspiring.
September 20 is the Memorial of the Korean Martyrs; 130 holy people whose memory deserves celebration, honor, and gratitude for changing the history of the world. Korea has the fourth-most number of martyrs among the world’s nations.
To begin their story, one must first understand something essential to traditional Korean society; education. As opposed to its neighbor Japan, whose traditional power structure (shogunate) was based upon war and the might of a clan, the Korean ruling class for centuries were the Yangban—deriving from the Confucian scholar. For hundreds of years, Korean dynasties maintained a remarkably peaceful stability.
The Surprising Discovery of Jesus
While he was in nearby China, diplomat and scholar Yi Gwang-jeong encountered Christianity for the first time. In 1603, he returned with several theological books written by Fr. Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit. As per usual, Yi passed on the interesting information that he had obtained.
At this time in Korea, class structure was clear. Even today, the Korean language’s historical roots are evident. I’ve struggled to learn all its honorific terminology; addressing someone who is older or more distinguished than oneself with different grammar than someone who is an equal or younger than oneself. Gender adds an additional level of linguistic complexity.
Therefore, meetings of Korea’s early Christians were astonishing to behold; sitting in the same room together were scholars, tradesmen, women, and even slaves, regarding each other with equal dignity.
Koreans’ search for truth led them, not only to a surprise meeting with Jesus, but to completely change their worldview.
Since then, the Catholic Church in Korea has been a main driving force behind activism for social justice and against government corruption. Today, South Korea provides the world’s second-largest number of Christian missionaries (second to the United States).
A Surprise for Us All
How often have you and I entertained thoughts of being ‘better than’ someone else?
In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples were on a journey, with the disciples bickering about that very thing; who among them was the greatest.
Observe how Jesus taught them: He directly asked them to admit their topic of discussion; “What were you arguing about on the way?”
As embarrassment rendered them speechless, Jesus surprised them. He brought a child before them. In their society, children were never given the spotlight.
[…] Putting his arms around it, he said to them,
“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me;
and whoever receives me,
receives not me but the One who sent me.”
So, Jesus’ goal is to upend their way of thinking: Do not vie for status in the eyes of humans. Instead, strive to receive the least-important person in your presence as you would receive me and my Heavenly Father.
May we each, like the Korean Martyrs, pursue a relationship with Jesus which causes us to radically change our worldview, and to humbly “remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other” persons in our midst (The Joy of the Gospel, no. 169).
Answering Christ’s call, Pilgrim Center of Hope guides people to encounter Him so as to live in hope, as pilgrims in daily life.
Angela Sealana is Media Coordinator for Pilgrim Center of Hope, having served at the apostolate since 2010. She also serves on the PCH Speaker Team.