In a letter sent from Korea in 1850, Ch’oe Yangŏp (1821–1861), one of Korea’s first native Catholic priests, writes about Barbara, a young Catholic woman whose vocation of celibacy is tested by both Korean society and the Church, and whose wished-for death solves the conundrum of having to choose between her vocation and continued excommunication. This essay highlights the narrative as a multilayered text that offers insight into Ch’oe’s cultural, psychological, and spiritual identity. Current historiography tends to focus on facts surrounding Ch’oe’s life or on aspects of his spirituality that are readily apparent in his writings. This essay supplements such scholarship by deducing subtexts from a specific instance of Ch’oe’s discourse in its relation to his role and his ideals, and by highlighting Ch’oe’s unique subjective and cultural situation as one of Korea’s first priests, with further implications for understanding the culturally and psychologically layered context of early Korean Catholicism. Through a close reading that draws also on Ch’oe’s background, his other letters, and the situation of the Korean Church, this study argues that the Barbara narrative functions as a special appeal for the suffering Korean Church, as an indicator of Ch’oe’s culturally intermediary position, and as a testimony of spiritual inspiration through contact with a holy woman.
Catholic missions, Catholicism and women, cultural hybridity, hagiography, Korean Catholicism, nineteenth-century Korea