AMDG

Pope-Francis-South-KoreaAs Pope Francis beatifies 124 martyrs from Korea today, with huge crowds turning out in Seoul to meet the Pope, it may be opportune to look at unique origins of the church in Korea.  Catholicism has grown rapidly in South Korea from 1% of the population ten years ago to over 10% now.  South Korea is a fascinating country that has seen rapid development and economic growth.  It is  the only country in the history of the world that has gone from being a foreign aid recipient to being a major foreign aid donor in only one generation.  It also has huge ‘soft power’ now, not only as the home of Samsung. and being a technology leader in many fields – but also in the popularity of their films, soap operas and music – Remember Gangnam Style? K-Pop has overtaken Japan’s J Pop as the music on the iphones in the Pacific Rim and further afield.  I remember when I was in the Philippines I would often ask the young people which country they  would most like to visit, and the answer universally wasn’t US, or the UK but South Korea.

The origins of the Catholic Church in Korea are fascinating.  Christianity has struggled to make inroads into Asia – and the exceptions – Philippines, East Timor which received Spanish and Portuguese missionaries,  the Korean Catholic Church grew for the first hundred years without any priests or visits from missionaries. Christianity was brought to Korea by a Korean diplomat who had encountered the books of Matteo Ricci in the court in Beijing.  Ricci is an incredible character, an Italian Jesuit, who missionary work was so successful that he gained access to the Forbidden City – the first westerner to do so.  His appreciation of Chinese culture and the peoples admiration of him as a learned scholar gave Ricci great inroads.  He was the first to translate Kong Fuzi’s teachings into Latin – thus coining the name Confucius – Ricci became a bridge between the east and the west.

ricciThe book that probably marks his greatest legacy was ‘The true meaning of the Lord of Heaven’ which argues that Confucianism and Christianity are not opposed and in fact are remarkably similar in key ways.  It was a way of explaining Christian doctrine into Confucian thought and proved to be very successful.  Ricci used this treatise in his missionary effort to convert Chinese intellectuals, men who were educated in Confucianism and the Chinese classics.   It was this book that brought Christianity to Korea in 1603, where it was to grow, without access to the sacraments, without any active priestly ministry.