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Written by Michael Fones   
Monday, 01 September 2008 06:45

This morning my friend, Yunkyung, took me to Chonjinam, the birthplace of the Catholic Church in Korea, about 90 minutes southeast of Seoul. Korea is rather unique in the Catholic world in that the faith was brought to the people by bibles and religious books (from China), and then spread through the evangelizing work of lay men who studied Catholic doctrine and believed it.

One of those men was Yi Byeok, who, in 1773, at the age of 19, read some of those books and believed. He acquired more books and began studying Catholic doctrine in earnest, eventually debating its merits with Confucian scholars, some of whom also came to the Faith. Since they had no priests, they observed the Lord's Day with prayer, reading, meditation, fasting and abstinence. After failing to contact the Church in Beijing, he sent a friend of his, Yi Seung-hun, to China in order to contact the western missionaries in Beijing and be baptized. Upon his return to Korea, Yi Seung-hun baptized Yi Byeok, who took the Christian name John the Baptist, since he felt called to prepare the way of Christianity in Korea. Yi Byeok became an active and effective evangelist, and it was this activity that earned the reprimands of his parents. In Korean culture, which was heavily influenced by Confucianism, filial piety was the most important virtue a man could have. His parents threatened to hang themselves if he continued to spread what were considered foreign ideas.

I find it interesting that these ideas were not the core of Christian doctrine, necessarily, but some of the consequences of that doctrine: the prohibition of worshipping ancestors; allowing men and women to sit in the same room together; and disregarding the distinction between nobles and commoners.

In his 31st year, after encountering his parents' self-destructive threats every time he prepared to share his faith, Yi Byeok entered a period of intense prayer and fasting. During this time, it is thought that he composed The Secret Adventure to God. He died of exhaustion in 1785, at the age of 31.

Yi Byeok's life is described in a short book by Msgr. Byun Ki-yung, the executive secretary of the Committee for Beatification and Canonization of the Founding Fathers of the Catholic Church in Korea. Msgr. Byun is also responsible for the plans to erect an enormous church in honor of those lay men who founded the Church in Korea at Chonjinam. It is estimated that it will take one hundred years to build an immense structure nearly two football fields long and capable of seating 33,000, with room for 15,000 more to stand outside. The site of the church is a beautiful valley tightly surrounded by tree-and-cloud-shrouded mountains. On the leveled site are 1 meter square granite blocks marking the pillars of the future church. It will truly be a mammoth structure, and a physical focal point for the Korean Catholic Church.

Located just 150 meters up one of the low hills are the graves of the five lay men who are credited with founding the Catholic Church in Korea. Along with Yi Byeok are four other men, including Peter Yi-Seung Hun, the first baptized Korean, two men noted for their scholarly knowledge of the faith, and the first native Korean catechist - all martyred in the persecutions of Catholics in 1792 or 1801.

While Yunkyung and I were walking around the site of the church, one of the workers who had let us drive up to the plateau drove up and informed us that Mass was about to begin, and would we like to attend? Naturally, we did, and I was able to concelebrate with none other than Msgr. Byun himself. He then invited us to a quick lunch with him before he had to drive to Seoul for a meeting concerning a high-power electric tower being proposed by the Provincial government to be placed upon one of the hills overlooking the church site. It was a delight to hear about some of the plans, and I regret that I wasn't able to understand a word of his homily at Mass. Yunkyung said it was about the early martyrs and the foundation of the Church in Korea.

The elegy written by Jeong Yak-Yong for Yi Byeok powerfully expresses the beauty of the faith for those early Korean Catholics.

A crane from fairland,
Came down to us common men.
Its feathers and wings were white as snow.
Cocks and ducks were jealous of its graceful features.
The crane's cry was strong enough to make the Nine Heavens tremble.
Its clear song stood out among the troubles of life,
In autumn, when the time to return came, suddenly it flew away.
What use is it to moan its leaving?

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