The identification of the relics was announced on September 1 by the Jeonju Diocese at a press conference. “Our Church, which grew on the foundations laid by the blood shed by the martyrs, has finally discovered the remains of those who began the history of the martyrs of the Church in Korea,” rejoiced Msgr. John Kim Son- tae, Bishop of Jeonju.
These early Christians, two brothers and a cousin, belonged to a noble family in Jeonju. Paul Yun Ji-chung and Jacques Kwon Sang-yeon were beheaded in 1791, and Francis Yun Ji-heon hung drawn and quartered a decade later in 1801, all three victims of anti-Christian persecution in the Joseon dynasty.
Paul Yun Ji-chung was baptized by Peter Yi Seung-hun in 1787, after studying Catholic doctrine for three years. He taught catechism to his mother, his younger brother Francis Yun, and James Kwon Sang-yeon, son of his mother’s sister, and introduced them to the Catholic Church.
In 1790, when Msgr. Alexandre de Gouvea, Bishop of Beijing, promulgated a decree prohibiting the practice of ancestral rites, Paul Yun and his cousin James Kwon burned the ancestral altar, and on the death of his mother in the summer of 1791, the funeral ceremony took place according to the Catholic rite and not Confucian, in accordance with her wish. The Royal Court hearing of this, ordered “the arrest of Yun Ji-chung and Kwon Sang-yeon.”
They defended their faith with determination and did not utter a single word that could harm the Church or other Catholics. Paul Yun, in particular, pointed article by article to the irrationality of ancestral Confucian rites when explaining the doctrine of the Catholic Church.
The governor of Jeonju submitted their statements to the Royal Court which ruled saying that, “Yun Ji-chung and Kwon Sang-yeon should be beheaded.” On December 8, 1791, Paul Yun Ji-chung and Jaames Kwon Sang-yeon were beheaded and died martyrs while praying to Jesus and Mary. They were 32 and 40 years old respectively.
The governor’s report wrote about them, “Although the bodies of Yun Ji-chung and Kwon Sang-yeon were covered in blood, they did not even moan. They refused to renounce their faith in God saying, ‘The teaching of God is very true, so we cannot disobey him, although we may disobey our parents and the king.’ They said it is a great honor to die for God under the blade of a knife.”
Francis Yun Ji-heon, Paul’s younger brother, forced to flee after their martyrdom, continued to preach the gospel. Arrested in 1801 and subjected to terrible violence, he did not deny Christ:
“I cannot abandon the doctrine of the Church, which I have loved so much that it has penetrated deep into my bones and is part of my very body. I will die for her 10,000 times. I am not afraid of national law because I firmly believe in the doctrine of heaven and hell,” he wrote. Martyred, he died on October 24, 1801, at the age of 37.
The remains of Korea’s first three Catholic martyrs were discovered in Wanju, near Jeonju, 243km south of Seoul, reports Eglises d’Asie (EdA), a news agency of the Foreign Missions in Paris.