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Exhibition at holy site highlights Catholic presence in Korea

By Hwang Joo-young

Published : Oct. 23, 2023 - 15:32

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A special exhibition that focuses on the Roman Catholic Church’s presence in Korea since the late 19th century is underway at the Seosomun Shrine History Museum in Seosomun-dong, central Seoul.

The Seosomun Shrine History Museum, which opened in 2019, stands on a holy site where a number of Catholics in Korea were martyred during the Joseon era (1392-1910).

Titled “Love and Peace for All,” the exhibition presents originals and copies of papal documents and letters, and government documents showing the exchanges between the Holy See and Joseon and Republic of Korea.

Papal documents issued by Pope Gregory XVI (Hwang Joo-young/The Korea Herald) Papal documents issued by Pope Gregory XVI (Hwang Joo-young/The Korea Herald)

The highlights of the exhibition are letters that Korean Catholics sent to the Holy See in 1811 and 1824 and papal documents issued by Pope Gregory XVI in 1831.

The Korean Catholics sent the letters to the Holy See requesting a priest who could administer baptism in Joseon where they continued religious activities amid persecution.

The letters prompted Pope Gregory XVI to designate Joseon as an apostolic vicariate. He also sent Bishop Barthelemy Bruguiere as an apostolic vicar to Joseon, according to the papal documents.

The exhibition also includes a 1942 papal document issued by Pope Pius XII appointing Korean Bishop Roh Ki-nam as the first apostolic vicar of Korea, which was then under Japanese colonial rule. Roh's appointment also served as a beacon of hope for the Korean Catholics who feared all the priests could be replaced with Japanese, according to the museum.

South Korea's first passport issued in 1948 was given to Chang Myon, who was appointed as a presidential representative to the UN and the pope. (Hwang Joo-young/The Korea Herald) South Korea's first passport issued in 1948 was given to Chang Myon, who was appointed as a presidential representative to the UN and the pope. (Hwang Joo-young/The Korea Herald)

South Korea's first passport, issued in 1948 by the Syngman Rhee administration, is also on display. The passport was issued to Chang Myon who was appointed as a presidential representative to the UN and the pope.

Chang, who was a Catholic and also had strong relationships with overseas Catholics, was sent to the UN as the then government deemed the Catholic influence on the international stage as crucial, according to the museum. Chang met with Pope Pius XII after the UN acknowledgment of the South Korean government.

"The Holy See and the popes highly recognized the sincere faith of Korean Catholics, which I believe is why they responded to Korean Catholics' requests and supported them both directly and indirectly," the Rev. Luke Lee Hyong-jon, the museum’s deputy director, told The Korea Herald on Friday.

The exhibition “Love and Peace for All,” organized by the Archdiocese of Seoul, was launched on Oct. 12 and runs through Dec. 24. Admission is free. A congratulatory ceremony for the exhibition is scheduled on Nov. 17 with Venezuelan Archbishop Edgar Pena Parra in attendance. The archbishop is of the Roman Curia, the administrative institution of the Holy See.

Poster for the Poster for the "Love and Peace for All" exhibition (Seosomun Shrine History Museum)