Late last year, Fr Tom Cleary, who spent 23 years as a Columban Missionary in South Korea, enthralled large audience from a number of parishes in the Sale Diocese (Victoria), as he narrated the inspiring story of the Church in that country, one of the most dynamic and fastest growing in the world today.
For centuries Korea was known as the Hermit Kingdom. No contact was permitted with the outside world, apart from an official government delegation to bring birthday greetings to the Chinese Emperor each year.
Fr Cleary provided an outline of the Church's foundation, struggles and growth in Korea.
"In 1784, a man called Ie Sun Hung was a member of that delegation. He came in contact with European Jesuits, became fascinated by them, studied what they had to teach and was the first Korean to be baptised, a step he took very seriously. He returned home with as many books on Christianity as he could safely smuggle in. A group of scholars gathered around him and studied these in secret. In great danger, but with great enthusiasm they set up the Catholic Church, the only example in history where lay people introduced Christianity into their own country.
"Catholicism was known as Western learning and within five years was banned and persecuted. Severe persecution for many years saw an estimated 10,000 Catholics tortured and put to death for their faith. A Chinese priest and a number of French missionaries smuggled themselves into Korea to minister to the faithful but all were eventually caught and executed.
"Andrew Kim Taegon and Paul Chong Hasang were smuggled to Macau and ten years later were ordained and slipped back into Korea. During the persecutions of 1846, Fr Andrew was captured and executed, following the example of his father and grandfather who were both martyrs. Father Paul also became a martyr. In 1984, Pope John Paul II visited Korea and canonised 103 martyrs, including these two priests. So the Church in Korea grew from the seed of many martyrs. Pressure from the West forced Korea to open up and finally in 1883 religious freedom was granted. Today there are about seven million Catholics.
"I was a pastor in several parishes during my 23-year tenure in Korea and I have always been amazed and impressed how outgoing and apostolic the ordinary Catholic is in that country. The lay people are the leaders in the parish and we rarely had less than 100 adult Catechumens attending instruction courses, with as many as 300 at one time.
"South Korea now has its own priests and sisters, with its own foreign mission society, with many priests and sisters working overseas. The diocese of Suon, about the third largest, had a seminary with 200 students studying for the priesthood when I left in 1992. Today the President of South Korea is a Catholic. Until 1979, when democracy came to country, the Church under Cardinal Kim was the strongest voice against human rights abuses. For five years running, he was voted by the media as the South Korean of the year."
Fr Cleary answered many questions from the audience during which he displayed his great love and affection for the Catholics of Korea. He said many parishes have perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Vocations are very healthy with Korean priests serving two communities in Sydney and one in Melbourne. It was an inspiring evening organised by Parish Cells of Evangelisation in Sale.
Report supplied by Pat O'Brien of Sale.