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.
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
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
Mary Kane, a first cousin once removed of Fr Jim Maginn, told
CatholicIreland.net: “I know the Koreans hold these men in great
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
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/