Andrew Kim Tae-gŏn, the first native Korean priest, was born in 1821, the son of Korean converts, at a time when it was against the law to practise the Christian faith. He was baptised at the age of 15, and then traveled 1,300 miles to the seminary in Macao, China. His father, Ignatius Kim, was martyred during the persecution of 1839 and was later beatified in 1925.
After six years Andrew returned to Korea through Manchuria. Shortly after he crossed the Yellow Sea back to Shanghai and was ordained a priest. When he returned back to Korea a second time, he was assigned to arrange for more missionaries to enter by a route that would elude border patrols. He was arrested, tortured and finally beheaded at the Han River near Seoul in 1846. He was 26 years old. His last words were:
This my last hour of life, listen to me attentively: if I have held communication with foreigners, it has been for my religion and for my God. It is for Him that I die. My immortal life is on the point of beginning. Become Christians if you wish to be happy after death, because God has eternal chastisements in store for those who have refused to know Him
Paul Chong Hasang (1795-1839) was the son of the martyr Augustine Jeong Yak-Jong and a nephew of noted philosopher John Jeong Yak-Yong, who were among the first converts of Korea. When Yakjong was martyred with Hasang’s older brother, Yakjong’s wife and the remaining children were spared and went into a rural place; Hasang was seven years old.
When he grew up, Hasang became the servant of a government interpreter, which enabled him to travel to Beijing in China. In 1825 he entreated the bishop of Beijing to send priests to Korea, and wrote to Pope Gregory XVI via the bishop of Beijing requesting the establishment of a diocese in Korea.
Bishop Laurent-Marie-Joseph Imbert and two priests were sent to Korea a few years later. The bishop found Hasang to be talented, zealous, and virtuous; he taught him Latin and theology, and was about to ordain him when a persecution broke out. Hasang was captured and gave the judge a written statement defending Catholicism. The judge, after reading it, said, “You are right in what you have written; but the king forbids this religion, it is your duty to renounce it.” Hasang replied, “I have told you that I am a Christian, and will be one until my death.”
After this Hasang went through a series of tortures in which his countenance remained tranquil. Finally, he was bound to a cross on a cart and executed. He was 45 years old.
When Pope John Paul II visited Korea in 1984 he canonized, Andrew and Paul, 98 other Koreans and three French missionaries who had been martyred between 1839 and 1867. Among them were bishops and priests, but for the most part they were lay-persons, including 47 women who suffered terrible indignities and martyrdom.
Today, there are over five million Catholics in Korea.