Several weeks ago, the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War was celebrated, a conflict that sometimes is forgotten and lasted three years. The war broke out following the invasion of South Korea by the Army of the North. The Cold War was the beginning. The Far East was still shaken by the explosions of the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So the specter of a new and imminent World Conflict was pressing on everyone’s conscience.
The process of democratization of the Asian Peninsula had a long trajectory and in the 18th century the Church had a decisive role in it. In fact, Korea represents the only case in the world of the evangelization of a divided territory in an autonomous way by the laity, without, therefore, the help of missionaries. It is a unique case in the history of the universal Church, which confirms man’s need to find meaning in his life and to relate to the Eternal.
Young scholars, looking for a new idea to be able to guide the change of Korean society, studied Western literature. Their curiosity changed little by little into faith. Reading and re-reading books on Catholic doctrine, they were fascinated by this God, seen as a merciful Father.
At the time, Korean delegations went periodically to Peking to establish commercial and cultural exchanges. During one trip the Koreans brought back Father Matteo Ricci’s book, “The True Doctrine of God,” to the homeland. Thus it was that a layman and great thinker, Lee Byok, inspired in the text of the famous Jesuit missionary, founded the first Christian community. Around 1780, he asked his friend Lee Seung Hun, who was part of the delegation going to China, to be baptized and to bring back to the homeland religious books and writings to further reflection on the Catholic faith. From the beginning, as was foreseeable, the Korean Church was persecuted by the government because the State religion was Confucianism and there was no freedom to profess other faiths.
Lee Byok guided the group of students in this research, he developed the “Gang-Hak-Hwe” (meeting to talk about science), composed a lyrical compendium of the Old and New Testament entitled “Recapitulation of the Teaching of the Church” and , in addition, composed a hymn: “Song to Respect God.” Ignorant of the calendar, they felt the need to fix a day dedicated to the Lord, which they established on the seventh fourteenth and twenty-first of the lunar calendar; a day dedicated to prayer, to contemplation and to fasting. They observed the Commandments and the Precepts of the Church. Lee Byok himself was persecuted first by his family and after 15 days of fasting died at the age of 31. It was the first offering made to God by the Korean Church in a non-Christian country (it was 1785). Notwithstanding the loss of their founder, the Church went forward, acquiring impetus and vigor to proclaim the Truth, submitting itself to the Bishop of Peking, after having learned of the existence of the ecclesiastical structures.
Up to the middle of 1800 they spread the Gospel in their own homeland, until the arrival of French missionaries, who sacrificed their life for the proclamation of the Word of God, following the example of Christ who gave His life on the cross to the whole of humanity to redeem all men.
Following the division of Korea between North and South, which occurred in 1948, the religious situation was also split: two-thirds of the total population is in the South, where today Catholics reach 10% while in the North the Regime is opposed to the Church and half of the population is atheist. The religions diffused in Korea are Buddhism, Cheondoism (religion of the heavenly way) and Christianity. In the South the latter represents 26% of the population, although the majority belong to the Evangelical Church. Famous worldwide is the Church of Unification, whose head is Reverend Moon.
The evangelization of Asia represents a great challenge for the Church today, where millions of people are present who have never heard of Jesus Christ. Difficult places, often inaccessible, but the Korean example shows how the “hunger for God” is essential for every man. The path to follow is uphill, and tribulations will not be lacking, but history teaches that after a time of great persecution there is always a very long time of graces and Saints. Thus it was after Luther’s Schism and after the horror of World War II.
Priests, Religious and families that are on mission in Korea (as in other frontier posts) are certain: no man’s hand will be able to compete or to destroy an institution carried forward by the power of God.