Savior meets Sage: Korea's Confucian Catholicism

world | Nov 14, 2007 | By Joshua Snyder

If Confucius is among the virtuous pagans in the Limbo described in Dante's Inferno - and there is no reason for him not to be - then he is surely smiling upon the Catholic Church in what is often described as the world's most Confucian country. The inculturation of the Catholic Faith in Confucian Korea is a story that is both instructive and exemplary, one that speaks to the universality of both Catholicism as a religion and Confucianism as a philosophy.

While there is speculation that Nestorian missionaries may have brought the Christian religion as far as the Korean peninsula in the first millennium, the first documented evidence of the gospel's arrival in Korea was, paradoxically and painfully, during Toyotomi Hideyoshi's invasions of 1592. The 16th has been called Japan's "Catholic Century," when as much as ten percent of the population had converted to the religion brought to the country by Saint Francis Xavier. Among Hideyoshi's samurai were Catholics who managed to convert a few of the Koreans they encountered. Later, this same Hideyoshi went on to persecute the Japanese Church, leaving generations of Kakure Kirishitan ("hidden Christians") to keep the Faith underground.

The Koreans converts of the Hideyoshi invasion suffered the same fate as the Kakure Kirishitan, not from persecution but from the lack of the priesthood and the sacraments vital to the Catholic religion. For centuries, some of these believers kept the trappings the Faith, to the degree that a 19th Century French missionary priest, in a region in which he had thought the Gospel had yet reached, reported meeting a Korean who told him that he was of the same Faith.

But it was not the French who first brought the Faith to Korea. In an event unparalleled in Church history, Korea was "self-evangelized" by laymen. In the 18th Century, some Korean Confucian scholars visiting Peking brought back home with them some Catholic tracts that had been written in the previous century by Fr. Matteo Ricci, S.J., a Jesuit priest who had risen to become the emperor's chief astronomer. Fr. Ricci, who had come to describe himself as a "Western Confucian," translated the Confucian classics into Latin and gave us the Latinized names by which Westerners still know Confucius and Mencius. He saw in Confucian teaching a preparatio evangelium - a preparation for the Gospel -and concluded that Confucianism was more compatible with Catholicism than it was with the Buddhist and Taoist elements with which it has been combined to form Neo-Confucianism. The tracts Fr. Ricci wrote were written for the Confucian mind, and when they reached Korea, they created quite an intellectual sensation among the literati.

Thus, it was laymen, Confucian scholars no less, who introduced the Catholic faith to Korea. In 1784, the first Catholic prayer house was established in P'yŏngyang. The contemporary Korean neo-Confucian school known as Sirhak, or "practical learning," was open to knew ideas, Catholicism among them. One of the first converts was the eminent Korean philosopher of this school, Chŏng Yak-yong. For his Faith he was banished to internal exile on a remote island, where he worked on ideas such as land reform, the abolition of slavery, and administrative restructuring.

Saint Andrew Kim Taegon returned home from China, where he had been ordained to the priesthood in Macao, and established the Church with its priesthood and sacraments. He was martyred in 1846, in what would be one of a wave of bloody persecutions that would glorify an estimated 10,000 martyrs.

"Sanguis martyrum, semen Christianorum," said Tertullian: "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." His words ring as true for 19th Century Korea as they did for 1st Century Rome. By 1884, the persecutions had ended and the apostol



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