Faint organ music drifts from the massive brown doors of the Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul, South Korea. We step inside and a few people turn from their pews to look at us curiously.
This is Korea’s first parish. The relics of the Nine Matyrs, five of whom were canonised, are resting in the catacombs below us, whisper our guide. It is Stop One of Seoul’s Good News Road, and I’m a pilgrim.
Here’s what comes to mind when we think of pilgrimages: The tired, thirsty pilgrim travelling a rough dirt road, his feet aching from trekking down long lonely paths.
But Seoul’s pilgrimage routes are different. You will wander around the heart of a bustling city, encountering its painful past and experiencing cultural pleasures.
Myeongdong Cathedral, for one, is a few minutes’ drive away from SM Tower, a cultural shrine dedicated to K-Pop greats.
The routes follow the paths of Korea’s Catholic matyrs who died during the 17th and 18th centuries. Over 10,000 people perished during those years. So significant are these routes that the Vatican officially recognised them recently.
Then there’s Gahoedong Catholic Church, where many 18th-century Catholic matyrs once worshipped. The church stands near the upmarket enclave of Bukchon where centuries-old, million-dollar hanoks (traditional homes) dot the hills.
The Good News Road is one of three Catholic Pilgrimage Routes, which was officially recognised by the Vatican. The other roads are The Eternal Life Road and The Unity Road.
Meanwhile, The Hangang Route is one of three routes created by the Seoul Metropolitan Government to complement the Catholic pilgrimage routes. The other roads are Bukchon Pilgrimage Road and Seosomun Pilgrimage Route.
Good News Road, 8.7km
We take a bus from Myeongdong Cathedral to Cheonggyecheon Stream, an 11km stream that runs through downtown Seoul.
At the Supo bridge, which is flanked by shops, motorcyclists ride back and forth across the wooden bridge carrying wares. Cars honk noisily.
It is hard to imagine, amid this modern buzz, that Catholicism began by this bridge 230 years ago.
In 1784, “John the Baptist Yi Byeok” carried out the first baptisms on Korean soil by this very river. He, together with a few scholars had embraced Catholicism after studying it from books. And it was from his house that Catholicism began to spread in Korea.
A walk away, we approach a small building with a large painting covering the second floor. This was the Jongno 3-ga security centre. Once upon a time, it was the “left Podocheong” (police bureau) where countless numbers of Catholics were tortured and killed.
“... 22 of the 103 Korean matyr saints were matyred at the Podocheong,” declared a plaque by the police station.
Today, the site serves a far nobler purpose: Protecting people instead of killing them for their beliefs. We leave the police station and walk past the Jongmyo Royal Shrine, where it was said that the spirits of kings were placed in pottery. Beside the royal shrine is the Jongno Catholic Church, where we discover just how much the matyrs of Korea had suffered.
There, in the basement of the imposing brown building, Marus Jung Chang-mook, 75, showed us slides of the illustrations made by Saint Andrew Kim Taegon, the first priest of Korea.
While in prison, the matyr saint drew the tortures inflicted upon the first Korean Catholics. Letters written by numerous Catholics also told similar stories.
“He was so hungry, he ate worms.”
“He endured 100 over beatings.”
“They placed a hot coal in his mouth. He was only 13.”
“They stripped the skin off his body.”
Marus tells these stories several times a day, almost every day of the week. How does he feel, telling the tragic fates of these saints over and over again?
“I cry each time,” Marus said matter-of-factly. “But it’s part of Korean Catholic history. We need to learn from their severe resistance. I try to picture myself in their shoes ... and I learn that you have to have very strong faith.”
Hangang Pilgrimage Route, 4km
After our introduction to Korea’s blood-drenched Catholic history in the morning, it is time to walk the paths they took to their deaths.
But first, food.
Fuel is necessary for Hangang Pilgrimage Route. In fact, the route begins at Mapo Food Street where you’re encouraged to eat “Mapo Galbi”, a local delicacy.
We end up at Tosokchan Samgyetang near Gyeongbukgung Palace, a restaurant famous for serving the best samgyetang (chicken ginseng soup) in town. The restaurant takes great pride in the fact that former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun often visited the place.
The chicken is tender; prise it open with chopsticks and you’ll find a treasure of glutionous rice, herbs and ginseng. Yet, as I pop a tender morsel of chicken into my mouth, I recall the story Marus had told us of a 14-year-old saint who was so hungry during her harsh imprisonment that she ate cockroaches!
The image stayed with me as we walk through the “Brass Coin” market or Tongin Market, where fresh fruits and vegetables line the shelves and where patrons carry plastic plates full of Korean snacks.
Unlike the Catholic Pilgrimage Routes designed by the Archdiocese of Seoul, the three pilgrimage routes created by the Seoul Metropolitan government included cultural sites. The routes are designed in such a way that pilgrims will able to detour to Seoul’s popular tourist destinations if they need to.
It seems unusual, I remark to Kim Hyun-il, Seoul Tourism Organization’s chief of strategic business team. “Not at all,” says Kim.
Modern people are so busy that sometimes they don’t have time to reflect and meditate, but these pilgrimage routes gives them the opportunity to do so, he shares. “Even Catholics believe that there should be no division between the sacred and the holy. We can feel the sacred even when we visit places like the Changdeokgung Palace.”
If anything, the sites allow us to appreciate the sacrifices of the saints which enables us to enjoy our lives today, he adds. “(By walking these paths) we can feel at peace and at the same time thank the saints for their sacrifices that enable us to be here.”
The cool, early autumn breeze makes the afternoon sun bearable as we set out from the historic harbour town of Mapo to the Hangang Pilgrimage Route. The busy harbour has long been replaced with shops, houses and condos and now most Koreans visit the Han riverbank for exercise and other recreational activities.
And, yes, to take the occasional pigrimage.
We take the underpass and are soon at the banks of the Han river. A short distance away from the tunnel is a red arch, which marks the start of the route. (The arch – a series of ropes knotted into the shape of a heart – is the official symbol of the Seoul Pilgrimage route.)
The Hangang Pilgrimage Route opened this year and follows the actual path taken by the early Catholics who were executed for their faith hundreds of years ago.
The route has a symbolic flow, said Lee Bae-kyung, 73, our volunteer guide. The route begins with a dirt path. This was to symbolise the torture and pain matyrs had to go through.
We start walking, batting our eyes against the harsh afternoon sun. Beside the route’s dirt path, cyclists ride past in colourful shorts on paved roads. Pedestrians looked at us curiously from across the road as we ambled by with our videos and cameras.
“Summer palaces used to dot the river banks here,” says Lee.
He points to an island shrouded with greenery nearby. “That’s Pam Island, or chestnut island. It was once a rocky island, and the rock on it looked exactly like a chestnut. But the government removed the rock and relocated the 400 residents there. The rock turned into bricks for the dam in the river.”
After what felt like an eternity, the dirt road became a pebbled road. This, says Lee, is to symbolise the hardships that the matyrs had to endure after torture.
Long minutes pass, and we walk by an exercise station, several public restrooms and a group of seniors playing croquet in a field.
I try to picture the suffering saints as they walked on this very path. How surreal our surroundings seem in light of their sad fates!
“The matyrs gave up their lives for their beliefs. I wanted to learn more from their actions,” shares Lee who is Catholic. “Walking this route makes me think about my life’s decisions.”
The pebbled road ends and now it’s a paved road flanked by trees and much greenery.
This is the “forest route”. Things are getting better for the matyrs because they are getting closer to heaven, says Lee.
Meaning, the matyrs are about to be executed.
Finally, our feet aching and our shirts soaked with sweat, we arrive at the “flower route”. Roses creep up white arches, symbolising fish bones – the symbol of the Christian faith. This path is the shortest and for all its sweetness, has a grim ending.
At the end of the route is a squat hill. A church perches on top, the cross on its steeple stark against the blue sky. “This is the hill where people were executed because they were Catholics,” Lee reveals. “We call this Jeouldusan. ‘Jeoldu’ means to decapitate. ‘San’ means mountain.”
The cool breeze from the Han river chills our sweaty skin. The sun is setting, casting a pall over the flower beds. You can’t help but reflect at this moment.
Modernity and tragedy stood side by side, reminding us that nothing remains the same when time treks by. In a more sombre mood, we climb the stairs leading to the Jeoldusan Matyrs’ Shrine.
A group of volunteers guided us around the little museum in the building.
We walk to the nearby Yanghwajin Foreign Missionary Cemetary where 417 foreign missionaries lie at rest.
Silver plaques by some of the graves tell stories of sacrifice and dedication. But there are also many unmarked graves, each hinting at a tragic end.
Their stories couldn’t be told and probably never will be.
We are at the end of the Hangang Pilgrimage route. As we make our way to the bus, we pass the church carpark.
Ever so casually, Lee tells us that this was the actual spot where people were beheaded.
“This place used to be covered with white sand. It made it easy for them to ‘clean up the mess’,” says Lee. Later, I was told that when the executioners decapitated these unfortunates, “the heads would roll off the mountain into the Han river”.
Whether this is true or an urban legend cannot be proven. It is a grim picture nevertheless.
“Over 10,000 Catholics died here (on the hill). But we don’t really know,” says Lee, shrugging.
Most probably there were more, as many people went to their deaths without a name, he continues.
And possibly, without their families ever knowing about their sad fates.