Today, 20th September, the Church celebrates the feast of the Korean martyrs, St Andrew Kim Taegon and his companions. Apart from the terrible accounts of the persecution which the early Korean believers had to undergo as Christianity established itself in the Korean peninsula, and their subsequent torture and executions, one thing above all must always be remembered and discussed when we call to mind these Korean faith witnesses: the Church in Korea began not with evangelisation carried out by indigenous or foreign missionaries bringing and sowing the seed of the Word of God and the sacramental life of the Church, but by the thirst and supernatural desire of the Korean lay men and women who allowed a holy curiosity to draw them toward the faith. The Korean Church remains utterly unique in that its foundations are entirely lay. This extraordinary fact does not only remain an historical fact of incontrovertible significance but, perhaps more than that, has profound implications for the Church today. It firmly drives us to consider and to further enhance the role of the lay faithful in the Church in today’s world, as secularism and ever more aggressive anti- Catholicism make themselves evident, and as the Church continues to experience a crippling decline in vocations to the priesthood and religious life, especially in the so-called First World of western and northern hemisphere nations.
“The truth about Jesus Christ also reached Korean soil. It came by means of books brought from China. And in a most marvellous way, divine grace soon moved your scholarly ancestors first to an intellectual quest for the truth of God’s word and then to a living faith in the Risen Savior.
Yearning for an ever greater share in the Christian faith, your ancestors sent one of their own in 1784 to Peking, where he was baptized. From this good seed was born the first Christian community in Korea, a community unique in the history of the Church by reason of the fact that it was founded entirely by lay people. This fledgling Church, so young and yet so strong in faith, withstood wave after wave of fierce persecution. Thus, in less than a century, it could already boast of some ten thousand martyrs. The years 1791, 1801, 1827, 1839, 1846 and 1866 are forever signed with the holy blood of your Martyrs and engraved in your hearts.
Even though the Christians in the first half century had only two priests from China to assist them, and these only for a time, they deepened their unity in Christ through prayer and fraternal love; they disregarded social classes and encouraged religious vocations. And they sought ever closer union with their Bishop in Peking and the Pope in faraway Rome.
After years of pleading for more priests to be sent, your Christian ancestors welcomed the first French missionaries in 1836. Some of these, too, are numbered among the Martyrs who gave their lives for the sake of the Gospel, and who are being canonised today in this historic celebration.
The splendid flowering of the Church in Korea today is indeed the fruit of the heroic witness of the Martyrs. Even today, their undying spirit sustains the Christians in the Church of silence in the North of this tragically divided land.”Pope St John Paul II, Homily at the Mass of Canonisation of the Korean Martyrs, Seoul, 6th May 1984
There is clearly in the Pope’s words and message here an indication of the powerful desire planted deep within these Korean men and women to come to know Christ, and, without any means available to them, the singular witness which they give in searching for the knowledge which will bring them close to Christ, and Christ closer to them. They are the ones who, with an extraordinary sense of purpose begin this search and continue to ask for the supports which will further their search. How did this really begin? It’s a question hidden deep within God’s involvement, mostly unseen and supernatural, in our lives: it’s He, after all, who plants the desire for knowledge of Him in our hearts, a desire which, little by little, can be awakened through our own experience. Experience, knowledge, faith and belief – all are bound together inseparably for the disciple of Christ.
“If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes. The Word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart. Believe, and you have found him. Believing is having found. The faithful know that Christ dwells in their hearts by faith. What could be nearer? Therefore seek him confidently, seek him faithfully. The Lord is good to the soul who seeks him. Seek him in your prayers, follow him in your actions, find him in faith. How can faith fail to find him? It reaches what is unreachable, makes known what is unknown, grasps what cannot be measured, plumbs the uttermost depths, and in a way encompasses even eternity itself in its wide embrace.I speak in faith when I say that I believe the eternal and blessed Trinity, although I do not understand it, and I hold fast by faith what I cannot grapes with my mind”St Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon 76 on the Song of Songs
The powerful role which the lay faithful of Christ assume in the Church and in the world is still being worked out in the dynamic of the Church’s internal life, but its very reality insists that it be a principal means of the Church’s evangelising action. Lay men and women, by their very baptism, enjoy that same equality of dignity of incorporation into Christ, and so also the same call to be witnesses by faith and practice:
“The lay apostolate, however, is a participation in the salvific mission of the Church itself. Through their baptism and confirmation all are commissioned to that apostolate by the Lord Himself. Moreover, by the sacraments, especially holy Eucharist, that charity toward God and man which is the soul of the apostolate is communicated and nourished. Now the laity are called in a special way to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth. Thus every layman, in virtue of the very gifts bestowed upon him, is at the same time a witness and a living instrument of the mission of the Church itself “according to the measure of Christ’s bestowal”.
Upon all the laity, therefore, rests the noble duty of working to extend the divine plan of salvation to all men of each epoch and in every land. Consequently, may every opportunity be given them so that, according to their abilities and the needs of the times, they may zealously participate in the saving work of the Church.Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium 33
And that specificity of mission and ministry, of vocation and function, is always to be promoted since without it the mission of the Church cannot be achieved:
As sharers in the role of Christ as priest, prophet, and king, the laity have their work cut out for them in the life and activity of the Church. Their activity is so necessary within the Church communities that without it the apostolate of the pastors is often unable to achieve its full effectiveness. In the manner of the men and women who helped Paul in spreading the Gospel (cf. Acts 18:18, 26; Rom. 16:3) the laity with the right apostolic attitude supply what is lacking to their brethren and refresh the spirit of pastors and of the rest of the faithful (cf. 1 Cor. 16:17-18). Strengthened by active participation in the liturgical life of their community, they are eager to do their share of the apostolic works of that community. They bring to the Church people who perhaps are far removed from it, earnestly cooperate in presenting the word of God especially by means of catechetical instruction, and offer their special skills to make the care of souls and the administration of the temporalities of the Church more efficient and effective.Vatican Council II, Apostolicam actuositatem 10
As the age and society and culture in which we live changes so our response to it as a Church changes also, and with that a great impetus for the right response finds its home amongst Christ’s lay faithful. It requires not only thoughtful and prayerful development of strategies and planning, but a renewed adhesion to the sacramental life of the Church, and the gifts of grace which lie therein. Certainly it can be said that, while the infant Church in Korea existed as a Church of believers, who were nourished by their study and by their own catechesis of one another, that primitive faith community could only establish itself as the Church of Jesus Christ when it acquired and lived a sacramental life. So we know historically that those early Korean believers begged to have priests sent to them, specifically for this purpose – that they might centre themselves in a sacramental way of life, and in particular one which sprang from baptism and found its summit in Eucharist. And so for us. There can be no doubt that the Church’s power to witness effectively in the world to the reality of the Gospel and to the kerygma of Christ dead and risen again is grievously diminished if it does not find its origin in the sacramental life of believers who return again and again to be refreshed and nourished by their own participation in the sacraments.
“In Christ, Head of his Body, the Church, all Christians are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people he claims for his own, to declare his wonderful deeds” (1 Pet 2:9). The Eucharist, as a mystery to be “lived”, meets each of us as we are, and makes our concrete existence the place where we experience daily the radical newness of the Christian life. The eucharistic sacrifice nourishes and increases within us all that we have already received at Baptism, with its call to holiness, and this must be clearly evident from the way individual Christians live their lives. Day by day we become “a worship pleasing to God” by living our lives as a vocation. Beginning with the liturgical assembly, the sacrament of the Eucharist itself commits us, in our daily lives, to doing everything for God’s glory.
And because the world is “the field” (Mt 13:38) in which God plants his children as good seed, the Christian laity, by virtue of their Baptism and Confirmation, and strengthened by the Eucharist, are called to live out the radical newness brought by Christ wherever they find themselves. They should cultivate a desire that the Eucharist have an ever deeper effect on their daily lives, making them convincing witnesses in the workplace and in society at large.Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis 79
What do we learn, then, from the Korean martyrs? Undoubtedly, that the Church must constantly harness the immense treasure of gift and grace which resides in the lay faithful. Indeed, if we are truly alive to the days in which we live, the call to be a synodal Church should be the gateway into such a new evangelical way of living discipleship. Especially in this western world we experience a near collapse in shared faith life and the transmission of faith already heard and received: we live in a time of immense separation from the past experience of faith, and therefore a real belief discontinuity and hiatus confronts us. More and more the reality which we allowed pass us by thirty and forty years ago – that vocations to the priestly and consecrated lives are dramatically failing – shakes us. The sacramental life is vanishing before our eyes, and will continue to do so. Of course, it is a vicious circle, and the one failure depends upon and nourishes the other: when people are not evangelised (and this must happen before we can begin to speak about catechising men and women) then there can be no turned soil, as it were, in which the seeds of vocation can be sowed. And without those essential vocations the life of faith, and the sacramental life in particular, are closed out. Like the Korean Christians who began the work which would produce fruit in their children many generations later, we stand on the threshold of a very great collapse in which faith will be a minority experience, and the need to create moments of encounter with Jesus Christ, as if he were hardly known, will become the priority. Encounter with Christ, evangelisation in the Gospel, catechesis in the truths of faith – all members of the Church have this task to fulfil now.