St. Andrew Kim Tai-gon and Companions
by Fr. Ambrose Criste, O. Praem.
Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia: ‘All the kingdoms of the earth the Lord, the God of heaven, has given to me, and he has also charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem.’ (Ezra 1)
God’s providence reaches down and governs the most ordinary details of the life of His people. Cyrus, the pagan king of Persia, became the unlikely instrument whereby God would end the Babylonian Captivity, for instance. Even the civil rulers and all the vicissitudes of history are the tools of God’s almighty hand.
It’s an unusual day here at the abbey today. From 1984 until today, this day has been the solemnity of the Dedication of the Abbey Church … It was the anniversary of the dedication of the abbey church of our mother abbey from 1180, and so Father Abbot Ladislaus (and I presume several of the confreres here present) arranged things so that our abbey church in Trabuco Canyon could be dedicated on that same date of September 20th in 1984.
Now, the Korean Martyrs, all 103 of them, were canonized en masse in May of 1984, the same year as the dedication of the old abbey church on September 20th that year, so our abbey community has never celebrated this memorial … until today.
The anniversary of the dedication of this abbey church is now May 4th, so this is the first time we are celebrating the Korean Martyrs liturgically. And providentially, we have our postulant John here for a few weeks now, who is the direct descendent of the very first native Korean to be baptized a Roman Catholic Christian in the 18th century. His ancestor took the name Peter, and that man, John’s ancestor, was the beginning of the Christian community in Korea.
Here are some highlights of the beautiful history of that church. Early in the 17th century, Christian literature written in Chinese was imported from China to Korea. The last quarter of the eighteenth century, the first converts were baptized, including John’s ancestor Peter, and when a Chinese priest managed to enter the country secretly around 1790, he found 4,000 Catholics, none of whom had ever seen a priest. So the Christian community sent a delegation on foot to Beijing, 750 miles away, to ask the city’s Bishop for bishops and priests to serve this lay-founded church. Then, through the 19th century, several waves of missionary priests came to serve the lay Catholics in Korea, especially from the Paris Foreign Mission Society. St. Andrew Kim Taegom was the first Korean priest who succeeded in entering Korea as a missionary; thirteen months after his ordination, however, he was put to death by the sword in 1846 at the age of 26. There were four major persecutions, the last one in 1866, at which time there were only 20,000 Catholics in Korea. 10,000 had died by martyrdom.
Just think of that: more than 10,000 martyrs died in persecutions which extended over more than one hundred years! Currently, Korea has the 4th largest number of saints in the Catholic world. From the last letter of Andrew Kim Taegŏn to his parish as he awaited martyrdom with a group of twenty persons:
“My dear brothers and sisters, know this: Our Lord Jesus Christ upon descending into the world took innumerable pains upon and constituted the holy Church through his own passion and death; now he gives it increase through the suffering of his faithful… Some fifty or sixty years since the holy Church entered into our Korea, the faithful suffer persecutions again … But, as Scripture says, God numbers the very hairs of our head and in his all-embracing providence he has care over us all. Persecution, therefore, can only be regarded as the command of the Lord or as a prize he gives or as a punishment he permits … Since we are now close to the struggle, I pray you to walk in faith, so that when you have finally entered into Heaven, we may greet one another. I leave you my kiss of love.”
You know, my dear friends and my dear confreres, God is the one whose providence governs all things. He can take a Cyrus and make him the cause of the reestablishment of the temple in Jerusalem. He can cause the Gospel to find fertile ground in a pagan land, raise up Christians, seed the ground there with the blood of 10,000 martyrs. He it is who chooses those who will be His lights for the world. He is the one who sets the fire to those lights, and He it is who sets those lights on their lampstands. That very same loving providence extends to your life too, For there is nothing hidden that will not become visible, and nothing secret that will not be known and come to light (Luke 8).
Even if that light which He has kindled within you remains opaque or mysterious to you (or to me), we can trust Him still. We can walk in faith. And He nourishes and strengthens us in that faith right here at this altar. The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad indeed.
God sometimes asks the prophets to do something that looks absurd in the eyes of men to teach a lesson about listening to and discerning God’s will.
A calling from our Lord was very serious business. So much so that, for James and John, His call left father Zebedee stranded at sea and for today’s saint, with just two words, our Lord left the local customs post with one less employee.
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