The beginnings: early Roman Catholicism, 1784-1800

With the establishment ofthe Choson dynasty (1392-1910) in the late fourteenth century by a group of radical Neo-Confucian scholars, Korea underwent a thorough process of social and political change which created the most Con-fucianised society in East Asia. Central to the vision of these radical reformers was the concept of family relationships, which was given visual expression in the performance of the ancestral rituals called chesa. Neo-Confucian philosophy, although highly ethical, was non-theistic. From the seventeenth century onward, certain Confucian scholars found the orthodox philosophy of the state to be arid and questioned its non-theistic basis. Although many of these scholars were well aware of the writings of Jesuit missionaries in China such as Matteo Ricci and of the spread of Roman Catholicism there, they expressed little interest in Catholicism until the last quarter of the eighteenth century. In 1784, Yi Sunghun, who had been a member of a study group set up in 1777 to study the Jesuit tracts, accompanied his father to Peking, made contact with the missionary priests, and was baptised. Upon returning to Korea, he began to proselytise amongst his circle of friends and relatives, who in turn created an ecclesiastical organisation based upon what Yi had seen in Peking. These Korean Catholics accepted the church's teaching on participation in Confucian ancestral rites as being idolatrous. In 1785, the government, horrified at the refusal of Catholics to participate in chesa rites, issued an edict suppressing Catholicism on the basis that it was undermining social morality and in 1786 also banned the importation of any Catholic literature. In the same year, Kim Pomu, a government interpreter, became the first martyr following his arrest and torture for refusing to perform chesa. At this stage, the majority ofthe early Catholics were highly educated, coming from either the aristocratic yangban class or the bureaucratic chungin class. In 1791 two cousins, Kwon Sangyon and Yun Chich'ung, were the first martyrs to be executed for their Christian beliefs because they had burned their ancestral tablets. Within the first decade of its history, two important features of Korean Catholicism had already

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