Pope Francis is scheduled to visit South Korea next week, where he is expected to meet with the president, spend time with Asian youth and put 124 Catholic Church martyrs on track toward sainthood. This is the first visit by a pope to any Asian country in almost 20 years.
South Korean officials describe the visit of the pontiff to their country for the first time in 25 years as “very significant.”
Kim Hyunjun, director of the culture and sports division at South Korea’s Office of Government Policy Coordination, said the popular pope has often mentioned the need for amity between North and South Korea.
“I view that his visit has an implication of wishing peace on the Korean peninsula and reconciliation between the two Koreas, and I expect a mood of harmony, sharing and peace to be created through his visit,” said Kim.
But this week, church officials in Seoul said a state-run Catholic group from the North declined an invitation to attend the pope’s Mass for “peace and reconciliation.” Media reports say the North Korean Catholic Association, which is not part of the Vatican structure, cited upcoming joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea as a provocation. The exercises start around the end of the pope’s visit.
Pope Francis is scheduled to call on President Park Geun-hye. He is also expected to meet with family members and victims of the Sewol ferry accident in April that left more than 300 people dead.
The overloaded vessel overturned in waters along the southwestern coast. Most of the dead were high school students on a field trip. Their families have demanded that the government pass a law that would allow for an independent inquiry into the accident. Dozens of people have been on a hunger strike for several weeks at a major square in Seoul where Francis is set to celebrate Mass with one million faithful.
The Vatican says it has also invited women who were victims of sex slavery during World War II to the Mass for peace and reconciliation.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea says there are more than five million Catholics in the country - about 11 percent of the population. Korea is believed to have one of the faster growing Catholic populations in Asia.
The pope will spend time with young people during the Asian Youth Day events in Chungcheong province, more than 100 kilometers south of Seoul.
South Korea-based Lay Missionary Monika Jaruga is on the preparatory committee for Asian Youth Day. She said even non-Christians inquired about the weeklong conference on leadership and spirituality of young Catholics.
“They wish to see [the] pope. They would like to participate in some of the events… There was a man he started to tell me, ‘Ah… it will be really a good time for Korea. We are expecting to see [the] pope!’” said Jaruga.
The youth day events will be taking place in the Daejeon Diocese, which is where most of the persecution of Korean Catholics took place. During a 100-year period in the 18th and 19th centuries the government executed 10,000 Catholics for their beliefs, which went against the king’s rule and flew in the face of the Confucian-based society.
Unlike in other countries where Christianity spread, Korean nobility, not foreign missionaries, founded the Catholic Church. They learned about the faith through Catholic writings that were translated into Chinese.
During this trip Pope Francis is scheduled to beatify 124 of the original founders. Beatification places a candidate in the last stage before sainthood.
Manila Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle said the pope has an affinity toward Asia and he has told the cardinal that he wanted to share in the suffering of those who were persecuted.
“I remember the Holy Father saying how much he admired, admired, those who suffered on account of their faith. In fact he said, ‘If I meet any one of them I will kiss their hands or kiss their feet.’ And he was talking about Asia,” said Tagle.
Tagle told VOA that Asia is “very important” for the Catholic Church, which is tracking the growth of its ranks in the region. In 1910, the World Christian Database estimated about 14 million Catholics were living in the Asia Pacific region, accounting for 5% of the Church. A century later, that number has grown to 121 million, accounting for about 12% of Church members.
The pope’s first overseas visit of 2015 will include the Philippines and Bangladesh in January.