By Vatican News staff writer
The Catholic Church of Korea has kicked off a nationwide celebration of the 200th birth anniversary of St. Andrew Kim Taegon, one of the nation’s most revered Christian martyrs.
Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung of Seoul led other senior Church leaders at the inaugural Mass at the Cathedral of Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Seoul on November 29. Among the dignitaries participating were Bishop Mathias Lee Yong-hoon of Suwon, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea (CBCK), and Apostolic Nuncio to South Korea, Archbishop Alfred Xuereb.
Born on August 21, 1821, St. Andrew Kim was beheaded in Seoul on September 16, 1846, during the wave of persecution launched by the Joseon dynasty. He is among the 103 Korean martyrs, including 15 women, canonized by Pope St. John Paul II in Seoul on May 6, 1984. Their feast is celebrated on September 20.
Guide and symbol of faith
Bishop Lazarus You Heung-sik of Daejeon, who is in charge of the bicentenary celebrations on behalf of the CBCK, regards St. Andrew Kim as a guide and symbol of faith lived in charity and brotherhood. The celebrations will conclude on November 27, 2021, the eve of the first Sunday of Advent.
“The bicentenary of the birth of St. Andrew Kim Taegon is an auspicious occasion for the spiritual growth of the Church in Korea,” Bishop Lazarus told Vatican News.
In the 4 generations of the family in which St. Andrew Kim was born, he said, 11 members have died for their faith, some of whom have already been canonized, while others are beatified. “Therefore,” he said, “this Jubilee will give us all the opportunity to interiorize the spirituality of martyrdom.”
“Are you a Catholic?”
He explained the jubilee theme, “Are you a Catholic?”, the question that St. Andrew Kim faced during his interrogation in prison.
He replied, “Yes, I am Catholic", which cost his life. “For our martyrs, faith was the most important value,” Bishop Lazarus said, adding that for this “year of special grace, the Korean bishops wanted to take into consideration precisely the question, as a strong warning to all of us Christians today.”
He pointed out that in South Korea, only 11% of the population is Catholic, while more than half declare themselves without any religion. The interrogator’s question, he said, “calls us to reflect seriously on our identity and our consistency as Catholics.”
In this regard, he said, Catholics in his diocese have launched a humanitarian aid programme of supplying Covid-19 vaccines to those in North Korea.
The bishop noted that health protocols have restricted many of the bicentenary programmes to virtual events, which do not have the same effect as direct encounters but are a valuable tool to pause and give more attention to oneself.
Challenge to youth and priests
He said that the Church is concerned about challenges such as individualism, materialism and competition emerging in Korean society, which lead young people to lose the sense of faith and lead them astray from the authentic values of their culture.
Bishop Lazarus also sees the 200th birth centenary celebrations as a time for the evangelical, spiritual and pastoral conversion of Korean priests, who, he said, “need to rediscover their passion for evangelization”.
He lamented the “negative impact of clericalism” in the Church of Korea, considering the fact that, if the Korean Church still exists today, it is because of the faith and activities of the lay faithful who kept the faith alive during the persecution and afterwards. He also notes the influence of materialism and secularization among Korean priests.
Bishop Lazarus hopes that “through the grace of this Jubilee year and the protection of St. Andrew Kim, Korean priests will find joy in walking on the path of Christ, living a more coherent life, poor in worldliness and rich in Gospel values”.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, granted patronage to the celebrations of St. Andrew Kim, during its 40th General Conference in October.
Bishop Lazarus, who led a delegation to the conference, said UNESCO recognized the great human and cultural heritage that the martyr has left not only for the Church in Korea but also for the world. St. Andrew Kim Kim, he said, was a tireless advocate of human rights, he taught that all people are precious sons and daughters of God, both those who belonged to the upper and lower social classes in the caste system of the time. Thus, St. Andrew Kim was one of the main protagonists who introduced the universal value of humanity to the Koreans.
An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 Christians are said to have lost their lives during the 19th century persecution.
Besides the canonization of 103 martyrs by Pope John Paul II in 1984, another 124 were beatified by Pope Francis in Seoul on August 16, 2014. There is also a move to consider those killed for their faith by communists in the last century during the Korean War.
The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has sent the Korean Church a message on behalf of Pope Francis for the bicentenary celebrations.
He said the Holy Father is praying that this outstanding legacy of Korean martyrs will empower all of God's people to work for the preaching of the Gospel and for the expansion of the Kingdom of God of holiness, justice and peace.
“In this way, the Korean Church will be a home that is always more and more open, while walking with people's lives, supporting hope, building bridges, and sowing seeds of unity and reconciliation.”