Sunday, May 31, 2009

9-21-2008: 25th Ordinary Time (A)

Isaiah 55:6-9/Psalm 145/Philippians 1:20-27/Matthew 20:1-16
This weekend the Church commemorates the 103 Korean martyr-saints who represent some 10,000 Korean Catholics tortured and executed, for their faith and by their government, over the course of the nineteenth century. Their heroic witness, it is said, has given rise to the fastest growing church in the world, making true that ancient adage: the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians. Though I wouldn’t want to take anything away from the martyrs’ heroic witness, one might still ask why these men, women, and even children, had to die. The answer would lead us into the very complex, three-centuries-long affair, known to history as the Chinese Rites Controversy.

An over-simplified synopsis: Koreans practiced the Confucian ritual of paying obeisance to their ancestors, a practice that some western missionaries called ancestor-worship. Over the course of three centuries some popes permitted the practice; others forbade it. During the rise of Catholicism in Korea, it was forbidden. The Korean government, during the Confucian Yi Dynasty, required as a matter of civic responsibility, that all Koreans honor their ancestors in this manner. Thus, the impasse. Korean Catholics were accused of civic disobedience, tantamount to treason, for their failure to fulfill their filial duties toward their ancestors. The would-be martyrs, however, claimed they were being obedient to a higher authority.

In hindsight a modern western observer wonders what all the fuss was about. Not bowing before the nameplate of your ancestors hardly seems treasonous, meriting torture and death. Conversely, wasn’t praying for the dead, as Catholics are required to do, virtually the same as respecting one’s dead ancestors by remembering them in a ritual manner? The controversy wouldn’t be finally settled until the 1930s when Pius XI accepted the argument that since the rites came under the jurisdiction of the indigenous government’s Bureau of Education, and not that of Religion, the rites should not be judged religious in nature. And so the bow of obeisance is now incorporated into the Catholic prayers for the dead.

One could argue, I suppose, that the martyrs died in vain; or that the higher authority they claimed to obey was quite fickle in its pronouncements, easily swayed by the politics of the time. Or perhaps, as in many life and death decisions, one accepts that the line you draw in the sand over which you decide not to cross may well be washed away by the tide; suggesting that it’s not where the line is drawn that matters most, but rather the decision to make your mark in the first place -- that’s what has eternal consequences.

Modern Korean Catholics might now practice what the martyrs refused to do, but it is their names – the names of those martyr-saints -- before which we all may now bow, praying for their merciful intercession before God.

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