Pope Francis has announced that he will visit South Korea in mid-August, in what will be a rare papal visit to the Korean Peninsula. No Pope has visited Asia since 1995 and Korea since 1989. This is perhaps quite surprising given that the Philippines, in particular, has a massive Catholic population. Even South Korea records population figures of 10.9% declaring for the Roman religion.
The visit of Pope Francis to South Korea will carry special meaning as he is to beatify 124 ‘martyrs’, killed during the anti-Christian persecutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. The ceremony will not only be a symbolic gesture of remembrance but a reminder of the origins of Christianity in the Far East.
The Age of Exploration opened up a whole new world of potential converts for the zealous Christian missionaries of Europe, particularly the Catholics. Within the Catholic branch it was the Jesuits, ‘the soldiers of Christ’, who were most active in spreading the gospel overseas.
In the 16th century, Michele Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci reached the court of the Ming Dynasty in China, where they had some great success in converting the natives, establishing missionary schools and an independent Chinese priesthood. It was from China that Christianity first spread to Korea, which had no dedicated mission of its own until the late 18th century.
At the same time as China was opened up to the Catholic God, so was Japan. Foremost amongst the Jesuit missionaries here were Francis Xavier (now a Saint) and Alessandro Valignano. Not only did they manage to convert several Japanese noble families but, like Ricci and Ruggieri, contributed greatly to European knowledge of Asia with their extensive letters and observational writings.
Whilst the expansion of Christianity in Japan was fairly rapid, its termination was equally abrupt. The Sengoku (warring states) Period (1467-1573) had allowed the infiltration of foreign influence. By the late 16th century nearly 300,000 Christians were openly practicing in Japan. However a growing resurrection of central power during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period led to a concerted effort to eradicate the growing influence of the European fathers.
A general persecution was unleashed, culminating in the 5 February 1597 crucifixion of 26 Christians at Nagasaki. A mixture of Jesuits and Franciscans, they were a testament to the rapid advances of denominational Christianity in the country. By the 1630s, the remaining Japanese Christians had been driven underground by the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Whilst not as successful as in Japan, Christianity in China was also deemed a threat by the ailing Ming Dynasty which enforced a general clampdown. Likewise in Korea, increasing missionary efforts were rebuffed by an indigenous leadership threatened by the intellectual and cultural power of the Catholic Church.
Despite the persecutions, and the martyrdom, Christianity survived in these Northeast Asian countries. Underground movements were maintained, amidst the spirit of sacrifice imbued in the actions of the martyrs, and they would finally emerge in the 20th century during a new era of religious tolerance.
Some 52 million Christians practice in China, over 1 million in Japan and 14 million in Korea. Without the proselytizing zeal of their 16th century predecessors, these people would have an entirely different belief system.
Whether this is a good or bad thing is up for debate yet it is perfectly clear why Pope Francis seeks the beatification of the Korean martyrs, pioneers of a truly global religion.