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Seven Irish Columbans among 84 modern-day martyrs of Korea who may be beatified

By Cian Molloy - 13 February, 2017

Hopes are high that seven Columban priests martyred in Korea will be beatified soon by Pope Francis, but it is unlikely that the Irish missionaries will be formally declared ‘Blessed’ during the Pontiff’s visit to this country for the World Meeting of Families in 2018.

Two years ago, it was widely reported in the Irish media that the seven were among 124 Korean martyrs who were to be beatified by Pope Francis during his visit to the Asian Youth Day gathering in Seoul in August 2014, but unfortunately these reports were mistaken.

“There was some confusion between the announcement in 2014 that 124 martyrs from the 18th and 19th centuries were to be beatified that year and the announcement in 2013 by the Korean bishops that they would seek the beatification of 84 modern martyrs who died during the 20th century,” said Fr Cyril Lovett, a former editor of the Far East magazine, a publication that highlights and promotes the Columban Fathers’ activities. “In fact, it is because the Korean bishops are the promoters of this cause that the beatification of the seven Irish Columbans won’t take place in Ireland.”

The 84 modern-day Korean martyrs were killed by Japanese occupation forces during the Second World War or by Communist forces during the Korean war, when the north invaded the south. Indeed, the first of the Irish Columbans to be martyred, Fr Anthony Collier from Clogherhead, Co Louth, had been placed under house arrest by the Japanese from 1941 to 1945. When he was executed by Communists in 1950, Fr Collier was the first non-Korean to be killed in the Korean War.

The other six Irish martyrs are: Fr James Maginn, who was actually born in America of Irish parents; Fr Patrick Reilly of Drumraney, Co Westmeath; Msgr Pat Brennan, also an American of Irish parents; Fr Thomas Cusack of Liscannor, Co Clare; Fr John O’Brien of Donamon, Co Roscommon; and Fr Francis Canavan of Headford, Galway.

Notably, all seven had the opportunity to flee from the North Korean invasion and knew their lives would be in danger if they remained in their parishes, but all seven chose to remain with their flock – it is for this reason that they are considered martyrs by the Church in Korea. Mary Kane, a first cousin once removed of Fr Jim Maginn, told CatholicIreland.net: “I know the Koreans hold these men in great esteem.”

Dalgan Park, Co. Meath

At the Columban headquarters in Dalgan Park, Co Meath, there is a memorial in the chapel to the 24 Columbans – 23 priests and one sister (Sr Joan Sawyer) – who died violent deaths while on the missions. “It is hard to say sometimes if someone who is murdered is a martyr or not,” said Fr Lovett. “So we honour all 24 equally. Dalgan Park is open to the public and we regularly get people asking if they can visit the chapel – everyone is welcome to pray there.”

The Korean Church is unusual in that, uniquely, it was first evangelised by lay people, said Fr Lovett. It was a group of nobles visiting China in the 17th century who first came across Christianity and it was they who brought it back to their home country. When a Chinese priest secretly entered the country a dozen years later, he found 4,000 practising Catholics there, none of whom had ever seen a priest!

This Christian community was severely persecuted – their practice of gathering together in groups to worship, without any class distinctions, was seen as a challenge to the state’s hierarchy. More than 10,000 Catholics were martyred in a series of persecutions. In 1984, Pope John Paul II canonised 103 of these martyrs. As a result, Korea is the country with the 4th largest number of saints officially recognised by the Catholic Church. Who knows, some day in the near future the seven Irish Columban priests will be included in that official roll of saints.

For more information about the Columbans and Dalgan Park, visit: http://www.imu.ie/columban-missionaries-ssc/.

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