Development of the Early Catholic Church in Korea
1. Establishment of the Catholic Church in Korea
Yi Seung-hun, the first Korean who was christened Peter in Beijing, on his return from China, baptized Yi Byeok on September, 1784, and formed a Christian community. It was Yi Byeok who had recommended Yi Seung-hun to contact the Western missionaries in Beijing and learn the Catholic doctrine. For this reason, the baptism of Yi Byeok has been considered as the starting point of the Catholic Church in Korea.
Following the baptism of Yi Byeok, Yi Seung-hun baptizes Gwon Il-sin who was a descendant of a leading scholarly family at that time and studied Catholicism through the Western books in Chinese. These first three Korean Catholics, Peter Yi Seung-hun, John Baptist YI Byeok and Francis Xavier Kwon Il-sin, are called the Founding Fathers of the Catholic Church in Korea. These "three Apostles" spread Catholicism among intellectuals of the noble class as well as the middle and lower classes including women.
The Christian community developed rapidly thanks to their ardent dedication to the mission. They translated books on Catholic doctrine from Chinese into Korean for the faithful. At this stage of the Church's development under the lay leadership, they chose their own priests and began to celebrate Mass and administered the sacraments. This is called the "Pseudo-hierarchy era" of the Catholic Church in Korea. It was initiated with good intentions of these leaders who found about the sacraments and liturgy in books they studied. They also did it to meet the needs of the rapidly developing community. However it was also due to their ignorance on Catholic doctrine.
Very soon they began to doubt the legitimacy of their practice and administration of sacraments. They eventually consulted the Bishop of Beijing for an authoritative interpretation of their practice. They stopped it immediately when they realized that their practice was illegitimate and asked to send priests to Korea.
2. Development of the Catholic Church in Korea
Bishop of Beijing, when he received the letter from Korean Catholics, was very impressed to know that Koreans had formed a community of believers by themselves and practiced their faith. In response to the inquiry of the initiative regarding the administration of sacraments, the Bishop said that it is illegitimate but would not raise any problem for they did it out of ignorance and with good intention. Then he promised to send a missionary to Korea where nearly 4,000 believers already existed without priest.
As a consequence, Korea came under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Beijing and Father James Zhou Wen-mo, a Chinese priest of the Diocese of Beijing, was sent to Korea in 1794. After his arrival, Father Zhou preached the gospel secretly with the assistance and under protection of the Korean faithful. The Catholic Church in Korea at that time was supported by the common people and some intellectuals from the upper class.
By 1801, there were about 10,000 people who embraced the Christian faith, but this rapid growth was soon obstructed by the persecutions. Korean Catholics attempted to contact the Bishop of Beijing and the Holy See to inform of their situation. They constantly appealed to the Holy See to send missionaries and wanted to have their own diocese. As a result, the Congregation of Propaganda Fidei in Rome established the Joseon Apostolic Vicariate in 1831.
The Paris Foreign Missions Society was mandated for the mission of this newly established Apostolic Vicariate. As a result, French missionaries came to Korea secretly. Bishop Imbert was one of them. In 1846, Andrew Kim Tae-gon was ordained and became the first Korean priest. In early 1866, Korean Catholics numbered about 20,000 despite several harsh persecutions.
3. Life of the Believers
The Catholics were persecuted not only by the government but also by their village community and their family. In such a hard situation they eventually formed their own Christian Villages called 'Gyouchon' in isolated places seeking for a better environment to practice their religion. Their life was unsettled and insecure because they had to move from one place to another, eluding the vigilance of the persecutors. All Catholics at that time were in the state of lawbreakers since they followed a religion which was banned by the government. In Christian Villages they had a community life under the direction of lay leader, and sometimes they shared their property in common as the Christians of Apostolic times did. The French missionaries who arrived in Korea in the middle of 1800's were deeply impressed by the life of the Korean faithful in Christian villages and admired saying, "The Christian life of Apostolic times had not disappeared but was alive here in Korea".
Despite the harsh persecutions, the Catholic Church in Korea developed and grew staidly thanks to the remarkable dedication of the missionaries and lay leaders. Beside that, Catholic books were published in Korean language which was easy to learn unlike the Chinese language that was used by the intellectuals of high class. It contributed considerably to the expansion of the Christian faith among the common people.
The demand of the common people for their human dignity and equality, which was a strong driving force of the development of the society, found a response in the teaching of the Catholic Church. The Catholics could understand the new belief and respect for God in the light of their own culture through terms such as 'loyalty to the king' and 'filial duty to the parents'. In this way, an unique type of Korean Catholic culture was formed.