Beatified Korean martyrs’ remains found

September 13, 2021

Robaird O’Cearbhaill 
Hong Kong Correspondent

The remains of three martyrs executed 200 years ago for being Catholic were discovered a few months back in South Korea. The investigations into who they were revealed their names this month, AFP reported. Before their bodies were found, the three were among 125 Korean martyrs beatified by Pope Francis when he visited the country in 2014.

Catholicism began in South Korea through lay members of the Church who found faith in Japan and China. As many as 10,000 Catholics were martyred during persecution which lasted for 100 years until 1886, when France made a treaty with the national government to allow Catholic religious toleration. Catholicism bloomed to almost 6 million, around 11% of the population. 

An estimated 800,000 persons attended the beatification Mass during the papal visit. The martyrs’ remains were found when a sanctuary  in Jeonju, south of the capital Seoul, was being converted into a grave. Using historical records and DNA testing, research discovered three names among the martyrs’ remains: Paul Yung Yun Ji-chung, 32, James Kwon Sang-yeon, 40, beheaded in 1791, and Yun’s younger brother, Francis Yun Ji-heon,  who was martyred, by quartering in 1801. 

The diocesan Bishop, John Kim Son-tae confirmed the identifications to AFP and described how Paul Yun was steady and even joyful as he was brought to execution: “We have found the remains of those who first set the history of martyrdom for our church, which was founded on the blood of the martyrs.” The bishop added that he was “smiling as if he was on his way to a party” on the journey to his death. “He was beheaded calling out ‘Jesus, Maria,’” he said. 

  South Korea is unusual in having a Church that was not evangelized by missionaries but by lay people. 

In their strictly stratified social classes, the idea of Christian equality and connection with foreigners were banned, hence the persecution. 

The Church’s growth and  the enthusiastic welcome accorded to Pope Francis shows how strong the faith became despite the danger. As the Pope said: “The victory of the martyrs, their witness to the power of God’s love, continues to bear fruit today in Korea, in the Church which received growth from their sacrifice. Our celebration of Blessed Paul and Companions provides us with the opportunity to return to the first moments, the infancy as it were, of the Church in Korea. It invites you, the Catholics of Korea, to remember the great things which God has wrought in this land and to treasure the legacy of faith and charity entrusted to you by your forebears.”

“The story of Catholicism in Korea is testimony to the power of the laity to spread the faith and influence the world around them. They also serve as exemplars of the way laity and clergy can and should work together,” the Pope said during his visit. 

(Photo shows the Chonami Shrine area, where the remains of three Korean Catholic martyrs were excavated. Courtesy of the Diocese of Jeonju/Korea Herald)