Pope to hail early Korean Catholics' courage when he beatifies 124 martyrs in Seoul

124 early Korean Catholics will be beatified before up to one million worshippers, in the religious highlight of five-day papal visit

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 August, 2014, 10:51pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 August, 2014, 1:06am


Pope Francis will pay tribute to the courage and sacrifice of South Korea's first Catholics when he beatifies 124 tortured and executed martyrs at a special mass in Seoul on Saturday.

Up to one million people are expected to converge on the capital's central Gwanghwamun Square for the mass, which will mark the religious centrepiece of the pope's five-day visit.

Security will be tight for the mass, with about 30,000 police on duty and snipers deployed on rooftops overlooking the plaza.

Only 200,000 people who pre-registered will be allowed inside the central ceremonial area, which will be ringed by a 4.5km-long fence.

Among those to be beatified will be one Chinese martyr, Zhou Wenmo, a priest who was executed in 1801 after surrendering to spare his lay followers further torture.

The most prominent among the 124 is Paul Yun Ji-chung, an 18th century nobleman who became Korea's first Catholic martyr when he was executed in 1791 after clashing with Confucian officials.

The church has said about 10,000 Koreans were martyred in the first 100 years after Catholicism was introduced in 1784.

Uniquely, the religion was not brought in by foreign missionaries, but Korean scholars who had come across Catholic teachings in China and shared them on their return with family and friends. It survived, as a largely illegal community, with virtually no formal missionary priests until clergy from France arrived more than 50 years later.

Yun, born to a noble family in what is now the southwestern county of Geumsan, was introduced to Catholicism by his cousin, Kwon Sang-yeon, and baptised in 1787 by Korea's first Catholic convert, Peter Yi Seung-hun. He converted his brother and his mother, who requested Catholic rites for her funeral, not the usual Confucian ritual.

Yun agreed to her wishes, but also smashed his family's wooden ancestral tablets - the focus of Confucian worship. News of his actions triggered outrage and the royal court ordered the arrest of Yun and Kwon.

Despite brutal interrogation, they refused to disavow their faith or reveal the names of other Catholic followers.

"Though the bodies of Yun Ji-chung and Kwon Sang-yeon were covered all over with blood, they did not even groan," the local governor wrote in a report to the royal court. "They refused to renounce their faith ... saying it was a great honour to die for God under the blade of a knife."

Their executions in 1791 - they were both beheaded - were followed by the first in a serious of bloody Catholic pogroms.

In Seoul, martyrs were generally paraded from Gwanghwamun southwest to Seosomun Gate, and then publicly executed.

"What they did was incredible," said Kim Dong-sup, 55, from a prominent Catholic family that includes 13 martyrs.

On Saturday Pope Francis will make the journey in reverse, before conducting the beatification mass in Gwanghwamun plaza.

"The papal journey symbolises a reversal of the condemnation of the martyrs and their rehabilitation," said Joseph Lee Joon-Seong, a priest in Seosomun.

Additional reporting by Associated Press