The First Korean Catholic Priest, Kim Tae-gon

2011-02-25

On February 16th, Koreans commemorated the second anniversary of the death of Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan. He was the first Korean to become a Roman Catholic Cardinal and practiced a life of love and sharing until his death in 2009 at the age of 86. After his death, Cardinal Kim donated his eyes to two patients, spreading a trend of pledging for organ donations among Koreans. Kim’s inspiring life gives us a reason to reflect on the origin and establishment of Catholicism in Korea and the first Korean Catholic priest, Kim Tae-gon.

Introduction of Western Learning
Koreans first encountered Catholicism during the Joseon Dynasty in 1603, when envoys returning from Yanjing, today’s Beijing, brought back the book ‘The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven’ and a world atlas, both by the Italian Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci. In Joseon, Catholicism was considered an academic study rather than a religion until 1784, when Yi Sung-hun (이승훈) returned from Beijing after baptism and established the first church in Korea. Catholicism began to take root on the Korean peninsula as a belief system, but in 1791 Catholicism was targeted for persecution as a result of Yun Ji-chung, a Catholic from Jinsan, Jeolla province, carrying out his mother’s funeral ceremony according to the Catholic rite instead of the traditional rite of Confucianism. After the death of King Jeongjo, who had shown an interest in Western Learning, the succeeding kings of Joseon oppressed Catholicism and executed those who propagated the Christian sect in Joseon, including the French Saint Laurent-Marie-Joseph Imbert and Chinese priest Ju Mun-mo. Yet the number of Catholics increased despite the severe persecution. The Catholic doctrine that all humans are equal before god regardless of race and social status gave hope to the people living in the Confucian society of Joseon Dynasty where harsh discrimination existed between men and women, aristocrats and commoners.

The family of Kim Tae-gon, the first Korean Catholic priest, also endured a history of Catholic persecution. In 1814, his great-grandfather Kim Woon-jo died in prison in today’s South Chungcheong province, and his great-uncle Kim Jong-han was arrested in 1815 during the Eulmi Persecution and died a martyr in Daegu, North Gyeongsang province. Kim’s family continued to practice Catholicism and this religion deeply affected Kim Tae-gon’s life.

Walking a Religious Path
Kim Tae-gon was born in 1821 in Dangjin Kun, South Chungcheong province. His family was well-off during his childhood, living in a house that had 99 rooms. But following the prosecution of his Catholic great-grandfather, his family’s wealth declined and Kim Tae-gon lived a hard life, moving from one city to another.

Kim Tae-gon was selected as a divinity student after he was baptized by the French priest Saint Pierre Philibert Maubant, who came to Joseon Dynasty in 1836. Priest Maubant traveled around Gyeonggi and Chungcheong province, baptizing Catholics and selecting the first divinity students of Korea. He chose Kim Tae-gon along with Choi Yang-up and Choi Bang-je and sent the three students to a divinity school in Macau. Kim Tae-gon left for Macau at the age of 15 and spent 6 years studying theology. In 1845, Kim was ordained as a priest by the French bishop Jean Joseph Ferréol and returned to Joseon as the first Korean Catholic priest.

Way to Heaven
From his arrival in Joseon to his martyrdom, Kim Tae-gon’s led his life through a rough, thorny path. In October 1845, Kim went to Ganggyeong, South Chungcheong province with Bishop Ferréol and spent his time and efforts to expand the congregation. Yet, the following year, Kim Tae-gon was arrested for a political offense and martyred on September 16.

The life of Korea’s first Catholic priest Kim Tae-gon lasted only 25 years and the time he spent as a priest amounted to little over a year. Yet, during this time Kim set up the groundwork for the propagation of Catholicism, enabling foreign missionaries to enter Korea. Even after being tortured more than 40 times and sentenced to death by decapitation, Kim Tae-gon asked people to become Catholics and join him. The path that Kim paved led to the successful establishment of Catholicism as a religion in Korea and the emergence of virtuous men like Cardinal Kim Sou-han. Kim Tae-gon’s brief life was a grand beginning, and had a great impact on people’s lives to this day.

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