Pope Francis visits South Korea

Photo Credit: Yonhap News
Photo Credit: Yonhap News

August 14, 2014, SEOUL – Today marked a historic day for South Korea as Pope Francis touched down at an airbase just south east of the capital Seoul to start his 5 day visit. The last time a pontiff visited the peninsular was in 1989 when Pope John Paul II made his second trip to the country. Korean President Park Geun-hye was present to greet Pope Francis upon his arrival and was joined by families of April’s Sewol ferry disaster. Also at the airbase to meet the Pope were two North Korean defectors, two foreign workers from the Philippines and Bolivia, respectively, and representatives of the bereaved families of other crime victims, the disabled and the descendants of Korean martyrs to be beatified later this week.

Pope Francis has a busy schedule in place for his visit including his participation at the Asian Youth Day in Daejeon, a Catholic festival for young believers. There he will meet thousands of young Catholics from around Asia where sixty percent of the world’s young population live. He will also hold a Mass for peace and reconciliation on the war-divided Korean Peninsula aimed at prayers for peace and an improvement of relations. There will be a ceremony on Saturday to beatify Korean martyrs who perished for their faith from 1791 to 1888 and it is anticipated that up to one million people from across the country may be in attendance.

The Mass for peace and reconciliation takes on added significance during the visit as just hours before the Pope arrived in Seoul, North Korea fired three short-range rockets off its east coast. The rockets were fired from the North Korean city of Wonsan and the last rocket was fired only 35 minutes before Pope Francis touched down at the air base. In the lead up to the Pope’s visit, North Korea also declined an invitation to send Catholic believers to Seoul to celebrate a Mass by the Pope. The North’s state-run Korean Catholics Association said that Seoul’s refusal to cancel an upcoming joint military drill with US forces was the main reason for its decision.

The Roman Catholic Church in South Korea has seen prodigious growth in recent years, increasing its membership by 70% in the past ten years meaning their number has risen from 2% to impressive 11% of the population. This is an even more remarkable feat given that Korea is traditionally a Buddhist country and most young people profess no religion at all.