What the Korean Mother Martyrs Teach Us
Reading the stories of the Korean saints to me is like sparks flying when meeting a new mom at the park. There’s the thrill of each shared connection and an eagerness for more.
When I learn about the Korean saints, I find threads connecting me to them in our shared Korean heritage. As a mother, I am drawn particularly to the saints who were also mothers. I see their uniquely Korean maternal instinct, the combination of self-sacrifice and nourishment of their family.
I see this instinct today in the moms of our Korean Catholic Church. They work tirelessly and without complaint behind the scenes, simmering soups in economy-sized pots and mixing bowls of “banchan” so that the community can sit together after Mass for lunch.
When lunch service begins, relationships blossom. The minutes spent waiting in line and the time it takes to savor a bowl of soup leads to rich conversation. Sharing a meal together is intimate, it brings everyone together.
That long lingering time after Mass is really where the magic of relationship-building happens. Church becomes like family, the children finding friends with whom they will grow together in their faith.
The Korean moms are also ready to go with meal delivery spreadsheets when new babies are announced or a health emergency arises. Korean moms know that nourishing the mother sustains the whole family.
We ourselves welcomed three new babies into the community and were the recipients of many pots of “meeyukguk,” savory Korean seaweed soup, the postpartum mother’s traditional superfood. It wasn’t just simple food service, each meal that arrived at our door knit us closer to each family who fed us. It was another opportunity to grow in relationships with our community.
When the Korean maternal instinct is transformed by the Catholic faith, it has the power to change the world. The Korean martyr mothers most powerfully and poignantly witness to this.
In Korean church history, the mothers were the foundation for the church to persevere through wave after wave of brutal persecution. More than 10,000 Catholics were martyred by the government, their seemingly foreign faith in conflict with the Confucian social order.
In the midst of hunger, homelessness, torture and imprisonment, the mothers were the protectors of their family and faith. They showed strength and resourcefulness in caring for their families in the most dire of circumstances, but their principal concern was to raise children who could become saints in heaven for eternity.
After St. Cecilia Yu So-Sa’s husband was martyred, she was shunned by relatives who knew they could be punished or die by association. Members of her family starved to death but St. Cecilia nourished their faith. Her son St. Paul Chong Ha-Sang later became instrumental in bringing the first bishops to Korea. When given the opportunity to escape her own martyrdom, St. Cecilia refused and waited for her arrest with her daughter alongside her.
After living through the grief of losing nine children as infants, St. Magdalena Son So-Byok went to prison with her oldest daughter and kissed her littlest goodbye to be raised by a relative. When interrogated by the magistrate, she boldly proclaimed, “If I have to die for God, who decides life and death, I will gladly die. But I cannot betray him.”
Each mother martyr was fiercely devoted to her faith, believing for herself and for her children that if they lost their lives they would save it (Mk 8:35). They gave every fiber of their being to work toward the salvation of their future generations.
Every culture has its own beautifully unique expression of the Catholic faith. When we celebrate the feast of the Korean Martyrs on Sept. 20, I am reminded of the distinct beauty of Korean Catholicism particularly through its mothers.
(This piece was originally published by Catholic News Service.)
Note from the author:
When I first began exploring the Catholic faith as a young adult, I was immediately drawn to the saints. Imagining the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) interceding for us from Heaven captivated me and connected with my Asian value of honoring and remembering the ancestors who came before us. As an Asian-American woman, I love that the Catholic Church recognizes saints from all over the globe, giving me models of faith that come from the very country my mother immigrated from.
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