Situation of the Catholic Church in the Colonial Period
1. Background of the Times
In 1910, Korea was invaded by Japan and became a Japanese colony. From that time up until liberation in 1945 Koreans continuously fought against the Japanese colonial rule in order to protect their sovereignty. Among different independence movements at that time, the most important was the March 1st Independence Movement that was taken place in 1919. This movement prompted the organization of the Korean Independent Army in Manchuria and the Provisional Government of Korea in Shanghai which led the Independence Movement of Korea.
In the process, Japan had intensified its colonial rule over Korea. Japanese authorities promised the Western missionaries the freedom of religion but they often violated it by repressing and restricting their missionary activities. During that time, Korea became a forward base for Japan's military advance towards the Asian continent. As a result Korean people suffered from various forms of exploitation. It was in such difficult conditions that the Church in Korea had to carry out its missionary works.
2. Position of Church Leaders on Colonial Rule
When Korea was annexed to Japan in 1910, there were 73,517 Catholics, and the majority of clergy were foreign missionaries including a Vicar Apostolic who administrated Apostolic Vicariate of Korea. These missionaries formed the leadership of the Church at the time of the Japanese annexation. They, standing behind the principal of separation of Church and the colonial authorities, tried to subdue the voice of Korean Catholics who were struggling for their sovereignty. Thus, both Protestant and Catholic missionaries were ready to accept any political situation so long as the freedom of religion was guaranteed. Japanese authorities tried by all means to conciliate the foreign missionaries in Korea in order to prevent international opinion against their annexation of Korea. As a result, the missionaries ended up to trust in Japanese authorities who promised to guarantee the freedom of religion and tolerated Japanese colonial rule over the Korean people. They feared that the involvement of Korean Catholics in nationalistic movements would provoke a persecution of the Church. Some foreign missionaries, however, expressed their anti-Japanese sentiment and were resolutely opposed against the colonial repression. Some Korean priests had contacts with the Provisional Government of Korea in Shanghai and supported them indirectly. As we mentioned it above, these Catholics disregarded the Church's disapproval and continued activities from their standpoint of conscience. This situation continued until the liberation of Korea in 1945 from Japanese colonial rule.
3. Mission Situation of the Church
Since the annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910, the colonial government adopted a two fold policy towards Church activities: appeasement and repression. They controlled the Church indirectly up to 1915 through the regulation of education, media and culture. It established ?mission regulations? in order to control parish activities more effectively. According to the mission regulations all missionaries, clergy and women religious including leaders of mission stations were required to have a permit of the Japanese authorities in order to perform their ministerial works. They could not establish new churches or mission stations without a permission of the Japanese authorities. The permission was issued only when the need for a new construction of the church or mission station, and the proof of solid financial backing were confirmed. Japanese military police frequented churches to inspect the observance of the mission regulations and harassed clergy and the faithful.
The mission regulations were withdrawn in the 1920's thanks to the March 1st
Independence Movement but colonial authorities continued to control and intervene in Church matters until the liberation of Korea in 1945. During the World War II, the Japanese government deported many foreign missionaries and oppressed local clergy and the missionaries who stayed in Korea. French Bishops were forced to resign their position of diocesan ordinary
When the Japanese government officially recognized the freedom of religion, the Church, hoping for its own development, attempted a diocesan restructuring. In 1911, the Apostolic Vicariate of Taegu was newly established and a French missionary was appointed as the Vicar Apostolic. But after the division of the diocese, the growth of the Church slowed down considerably. The annual growth of Catholics from 1910, the year of the annexation of Korea by Japan, to 1919 when the March 1st Independence Movement occurred, showed only 2.1 percent of increase, which was very slow compared to the 6.9 percent of annual increase during the Open Door Policy Era in late 19th century, and almost equivalent to the nation's rate of population growth at the time. We can find a root cause of this cooling off of religious zeal in the annexation of Korea by Japan, the repressive policy against the Catholic Church by the colonial authorities and the compromising attitude of the Church. From 1919 to 1944, the Church showed a very low annual growth of 3 percent.
From the March 1st Independence Movement in 1919 to the liberation day in 1945, the Church continued to progress, despite the darkened atmosphere, thanks to the foreign missionaries, religious congregations and Korean Catholic leaders. The Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres came to Korea in 1888 and the Benedictines of Othilien in 1909. In 1920, the Benedictines of Othilien were given charge of the Apostolic Vicariate of Wonsan. The Apostolic Vicariate of Yenki was separated from the Apostolic Vicariate of Wonsan in 1937. In 1940, the Abbacy Nullius of Dokwon and Apostolic Vicariate of Hamheung were born. A Maryknoll Apostolic Prefecture was established in 1927 and the Columban Fathers were given the Apostolic Prefectures of Ch'unchon and Kwangju respectively in 1937 and 1939. In the 1920's and 30's, many English speaking missionaries came to Korea.
This epoch was marked by the contribution of Korean clergy to the development of the Church. Full-scale formation of Korean clergy began as early as 1895, and as result, by 1900 Korea had 12 native Catholic priests. In 1910 the number had increased to 15, and by 1944 there were 132 Korean clergy devoting themselves to the work of the Church. This number was higher than the 102 foreign missionary clergy serving in Korea at the time. In 1937, the Apostolic Prefecture of Chonju was born under the charge of Korean clergy and it paved the way to transfer the control of foreign missionary-run parishes to local clergy. In 1942, the first Korean Bishop was appointed to the Vicar Apostolic of Seoul.
Along with the increase in the number of Apostolic Vicariates, the Catholic Church in Korea also carried out various activities of devotion, culture and social work, even though these works were limited in their scope. The devotion to Mary, the Eucharist and the Sacred Heart of Jesus which the Korean Catholics had practiced since the time of persecution were strengthened. With the Beatification of the 79 Korean martyrs, the long traditional devotion to the martyrs was rekindled. At the same time, the Korean Catholic Church attempted to increase its evangelization works in order to revitalize the Church. Great efforts were made to promote the publication of periodicals and books which contributed to the development of the Church.
After the annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910, the Church's growth was very slow. The French missionaries felt the crisis of the mission and tried to invite missionaries of other countries in order to promote missionary activity. The attitude of the Church in Korea the nationalism was reflected in its slow development. Most Catholics in Korea at that time yearned for the independence, but the Church authorities stood behind its principle of separation of church and colonial authorities, enjoining the faithful to be indifferent to their national aspirations. Consequently, the Korean people were less interested in the Church's missionary efforts.
Nonetheless, the Church continued to make some progress thanks to the efforts made by Korean clergy and foreign missionaries. Also, the Church fostered traditional devotions in the lives of the faithful. Devotions of the faithful were the driving force that maintained their faith and helped them to overcome the repression and intervention of the colonial rulers.