The following homily by Columban Donal O’Keefe, who is based in Korea, was delivered on 20 September in Los Angeles, where the Columbans concluded their General Assembly, which happens every six years. During the Assembly they elected a new Superior General - Australian Fr Kevin O’Neill, who has been working in China.
Today is the Feast day of the Korean martyrs Kim Daegon (Andrew), Chong Hasang (Paul) and their companions. The 2nd Century theologian Tertullian said "The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians" underlining that the witness of those who gave their lives for the Gospel inspired generations of believers. This is certainly true of Korea. The numbers of martyrs are astonishing in a country where Catholicism only entered in the year 1784 and within 100 years 10,000 believers were martyred.
At the end of the 18th century Korea was a country ruled by the Yi Dynasty. It was a class society based on Confucianism with its hierarchical relationships. There was a small minority of privileged scholars and nobility while the majority were commoners paying taxes, providing labour and manning the military. Below then there was a whole class of slaves. The words of today's Gospel "I no longer call you slaves - I call you friends" had a huge impact on these people. Even though it was scholars who first introduced the Gospel to Korea it was the ordinary people who flocked to the new religion. The new believers called themselves "Chonju kyo udul" literally "friends of the teaching of God of Heaven". That term friends was the only term in the Confucian
understanding of relationships which implied equality. They experienced this when they gathered as one - nobility and peasant - to pray, to celebrate the Eucharist".
However their gathering in that one space, with no distinction on the basis of class was perceived to be undermining 'hierarchical Confuciansim', the ideology which held the State together. The new learning was seen to be subversive of the establishment and this gave rise to a systematic suppression and persecution. The suffering, the torture the believers endured is well known through the official documents which detail trials and the sentences. There were four major persecutions - the last one 1866. At which time there were only 20,000 Catholics in Korea. 10,000 had died. Those figures give a sense of the enormous sacrifice of the early Korean Catholics - and I use that word deliberately because the other Christian denominations did not enter Korea until the persecutions ended!
This is the history, the tradition of the Church in Korea which has continued into the 20th century – and at the time of the Korean War others were martyred. Among them are seven Columbans - three of whose anniversaries we mark next Sunday 24 September - Patrick Brennan, Tom Cusack and John O’Brien. They choose to remain behind in the parish of Mokpo although warned that their lives were in danger.
This history has a tremendous impact on the Korean Church! When people talk about their martyrs they are talking about grandparents, great grandparents - it is that close and exerts a huge influence. Eg. the great grandfather of the former cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan was martyred. The two great symbols of the Korean Church's commitment to Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation - the Mun priest brothers - are 4th generation descendants of martyrs - they say that and it inspires them.
I remembering visiting one of the brothers in jail - Mun Kyuhyun (Paul) who had been detained because of human rights activities which were deemed to be in breach of the national security law. At the time the authorities wanted to release him quickly - having a priest in jail was an international embarrassment - and so they said they would if he would just sign a declaration saying he made a mistake! I went with his family to visit and the first greeting of his mother to her son was: "Do not dare sign such a document and take the easy way out. As Catholics we have always been faithful and true. Stay there until you are released - do not shame us". His mother put it to him, and he remained in jail for 42 months until he was released due to public pressure! That is the power of the martyr tradition!
On our visit to the Cathedral here in Los Angeles the guide told us about the wall tapestries - the images of the saints accompanying the praying community to the heavenly banquet at the altar. That image is very true for Korea - those 10,000 are walking with the Korean Church today. They are consciously called on to inspire and to strengthen the present generation. Shrines are all over the country to which pilgrims go to pray.
Among Columbans we also realise the richness of our own history. We have there the source of missionary inspiration if we choose to plumb the tradition of our martyr missionaries. For example, in May 1980 the army violently suppressed an uprising of the people in Kwangju city. However, before the Government sent in the troops, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked all foreigners to leave the city. The Columbans had a meeting and decided to stay - their criterion was simple: "We always stay with the people - we did it at the time of the Korean War". Then they had the happy hour!
We believe that the Martyrs are with God where time and space are different. They see us now as we are - and so can understand our deepest hearts especially our desire to be missionaries of this era. We can pray to them asking them for help. Many people have shared with us that when they need help they say a prayer to a dead family person - it maybe a partner, a child, a parent - asking them to help them. And inevitably they share how that person never lets them down.
I think that is a very concrete expression of our faith - we believe in the communion of saints, that we are all part of a great world in the hands of God. So in this the final evening of our Assembly we ask our martyr saints - the 10,000 Korean Martyrs and our own Columban martyrs - to bless us as a Society and all of us as individuals.
St Taegon Andrew pray for us, St Hasang Paul bless us.