The Mysterious Fate of the Bishop of Pyongyang

After holding out hope for his survival since 1949, this year the Vatican declared Bishop Francis Borgia Hong Yong-Ho dead, and declared a vacancy in the diocese of Pyongyang, North Korea. That diocese didn’t actually exist until 1962; it was created by Pope John XXIII in the hope that he’d survived. (Hong was consecrated a bishop and served as an Apostolic Vicar from 1944 on. There were several Apostolic Vicariates in the north of Korea at that time.)

Obviously if he had apostasized, the Communists would have publicized that; and if he’d been on the run, one would expect that word would eventually have gotten out. So the question is pretty much whether he was killed right away, “disappeared” by the Communists, captured and killed later, captured and imprisoned only to die of something, or…. ? Nobody knows, or is telling.

So any way you slice it, he’s probably dead, and he almost certainly died a martyr. If he were still alive, he’d be 106. It’s very doubtful that anybody in North Korea is able to survive that long, much less an “enemy of the state.” So he’s now officially dead, and his see officially vacant. (Unless Pope Francis has appointed another bishop “in pectore”, secretly.) As far as anybody knows, there are no priests living in North Korea. Cardinal Cheong of Seoul is officially also administering Pyongyang.

However, declaring him dead cleared the way for including him as one of the 81 North Korean martyrs in a new cause for beatification. (Obviously there’s bound to have been more than 81 martyrs, since 55,000 to 300,000 North Korean Catholics disappeared from human ken; but documentation is difficult.) Here’s the list of the martyrs in question: Hong Yong-ho Franciscus Borgia and 80 Companions.

Three of these are American: Fr. Patrick James Byrne was a Maryknoll Missionary. Msgr. Patrick Brennan from Chicago, Illinois, who’d been serving as the Apostolic Vicar of Kwangju/Gwangju; and Fr. James Maginn from Butte, Montana; both were in Korea with the Missionary Society of St. Columban. There are also several Irish, Belgian, and French natives on the list, although there’s a ton more Koreans. Finally, there was another O’Brien martyr: Fr. John O’Brien from Donamon, Roscommon, Ireland (also a St. Columban Missionary priest).

Here’s another cause for beatification: the 36 Martyrs of Tokwon (Abbot/Bishop Boniface Sauer, Fr. Benedict Kim, and Companions). Under Abbot Boniface, Tokwon Abbey had previously created a Korean-language missal, and translated all the NT epistles and the Book of Revelation, none of which had been available in Korean before. At one point, their seminary was the only seminary the Japanese occupiers allowed to stay open; and during WWII, their vineyard was the only one still growing, and supplied Mass wine to all the Catholics in Korea. So they were prominent, and targeted early by the Communists. The 36 Martyrs also include lay catechists, a priest from another abbey, and some nuns from a convent nearby. There are some amazing stories in the biography section, so take a look.

Those foreign monks and nuns who survived the camps were repatriated in 1953. (They’d be “confessors,” if you ever wondered what that meant.)

A list of the martyrs of Korea.

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