Pope Francis met young people in Dangjin, South Korea, on Friday. Credit Pool photo by Ahn Young-Joon
Pope Francis beatifies 124 Korean martyrs who were killed for refusing to renounce Christianity in the 18th and 19th centuries
Thousands of people greeted Pope Francis on his arrival at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul on Saturday. Photograph: Jung Yeon-je/AP
Pope Francis beatified 124 Korean martyrs on Saturday, telling hundreds of thousands of people who turned out for his open-air mass that their ancestors’ willingness to die rather than renounce their faith two centuries ago was a model for Asian missionaries today.
The streets leading up to Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Gate were packed with Koreans honouring the lay Catholics who founded the church here in the 18th century.
These early Catholics were killed in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Joseon dynasty, which tried to shut the Korean peninsula off from Western influence.
In his homily, Francis said the lessons of the martyrs were relevant today for Korea’s church.
“They were willing to make great sacrifices and let themselves be stripped of whatever kept them from Christ – possessions and land, prestige and honour – for they knew that Christ alone was their true treasure,” he said. “They challenge us to think about what, if anything, we ourselves would be willing to die for.”
Francis praised in particular the fact that lay people were so crucial to the church’s foundation and growth in Korea.
Police declined to give an estimate of the crowd size, but the Vatican said some 800,000 people had turned out. Catholics represent only about 10% of South Korea’s 50m people.
A cheer erupted from the masses when Francis declared the 124 “blessed”, the first step toward possible sainthood.
Many of the women in the crowd wore lace veils; others sported paper sun visors with “Papa Francesco” written across them, protecting them from the overcast, hazy skies.
Thousands of people packed into fenced-in sections leading away from the altar, which was set up in front of Gwanghwamun, the south gate to Gyeongbokgung palace, and the presidential Blue House behind.
Police in green vests stood guard along the barricades and volunteers handed out water to guard against the warm, humid temperatures.
“I’m so thankful that the pope visited South Korea,” said 75-year-old Yu Pil-sang, a Catholic who was trying to get a glimpse of the pope just outside the police barricade. “But I’m so sorry that all the ways to see the pope are blocked. I came to hear at least his voice.”
En route to the altar before mass, Francis stopped his open-topped car so he could get out and bless a group of families who lost loved ones in the April Sewol ferry sinking, in which more than 300 people, most of them high school students, were killed. On his white cassock, Francis wore a yellow ribbon given to him by the families a day earlier when he met with them privately.
Even non-Catholics turned out for the mass, impressed by Francis’s humble gestures and call for South Koreans to pay more attention to the poor than their own material gain.
“I do not know much about Catholics and South Korea’s Catholic history, but it seems that the pope is making sure to reach out equally to everyone,” said Eom Yae-sung, 49, a Protestant who said Francis had inspired her to make changes in her own life.
From the BBC
Pope Francis has conducted a large open-air Mass to beatify 124 of South Korea’s first Catholics at a ceremony in the capital Seoul on Saturday.
He paid tribute to the Koreans, who died for their faith in the 18th and 19th Centuries.
It comes on the third day of his visit to South Korea – his first trip to Asia since becoming pope in March 2013.
Pope Francis met survivors of the Sewol ferry disaster and delivered his first public mass in the region on Friday.
The beautification ceremony was held at Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul, with hundreds of thousands of people in attendance.
Beatification, or declaring a person “blessed”, is the necessary prelude to full sainthood.
The Pope is spending five days in South Korea, where the Catholic Church is growing. It currently has just over 5.4 million members, some 10.4% of the population.
Crowds of worshippers lined the streets leading up to Gwanghwamun Plaza for Saturday’s ceremony. The square was the site where unrepentant Catholics were paraded before they were publicly executed.
“They were willing to make great sacrifices and let themselves be stripped of whatever kept them from Christ – possessions and land, prestige and honour – for they knew that Christ alone was their true treasure,” Pope Francis told the crowd in his sermon.
“They challenge us to think about what, if anything, we ourselves would be willing to die for.”
This is a very significant and poignant moment for the Catholic Church in South Korea because the people who were beatified today were the founders of the church 200 years ago, says the BBC’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in Seoul.
They were also unique because they were not converted by missionaries who came to Korea but they learnt about Catholicism themselves and brought the books back to Korea to spread the Catholic Church and were executed by the royal authorities for doing so, he adds.
On Friday, Pope Francis held Mass for tens of thousands of people gathered at a football stadium in Daejeon, his first public event since arriving in South Korea.
In his address, the pope warned Catholics of a “cancer” of despair in materially-obsessed societies, saying that materialism was spreading like a spiritual desert across the affluent world.
Before Mass got underway, he met with some of the survivors and relatives of the South Korean ferry disaster that killed more than 300 people in April this year.
He was later greeted by a rapturous crowd of some 10,000 youths in Dangjin, where he spoke briefly off-the-cuff in English, acknowledging his difficulties with the language.
There he urged South Koreans to pray for unification with the north.
“Let us pray for our brothers in the north,” he said.
Meanwhile, China’s leadership failed to receive a telegram sent by the Pope as he flew over the country on his way to South Korea, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said on Friday.
It is traditional for the pontiff to send blessings to the leadership of a country he flies over, but this was the first time a pope had been permitted to use Chinese air space.
The gesture is seen as significant because the Vatican and China have had no formal ties since the Communist party took power in 1949.
A technical glitch was thought to have stopped the message from being received, which was later resent via the Italian embassy in Beijing, Mr Lombardi said.
Nuns await Pope Francis Credit Daniel Dal Zennaro/European Pressphoto Agency
The best single resource we have found on the Saints of Asia is the book “Saints of Asia” by our friend Father Vincent J. O’ Malley, C.M.
Want to be a saint?
Shortly after he converted to Catholicism in the late 1930s, Thomas Merton was walking the streets of New York with his friend, Robert Lax. Lax was Jewish, and he asked Merton what he wanted to be, now that he was Catholic.
“I don’t know,” Merton replied, adding simply that he thought maybe he wanted to be a good Catholic.
Lax stopped him in his tracks.
“What you should say,” he told him, “is that you want to be a saint!”
Merton was dumbfounded.
“How do you expect me to become a saint?,” Merton asked him.
Lax said: “All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let him do it? All you have to do is desire it.”…
Thomas Merton knew his friend was right.
Merton, of course, would go on to become one of the great spiritual thinkers and writers of the last century.
His friend Bob Lax would later convert to Catholicism himself — and begin his own journey to try and be a saint.
But the words Lax spoke ring down through the decades to all of us today. Because they speak so simply and profoundly to our calling as Catholic Christians.
Many of Nguyễn Văn Thuận letters, prayers and sermons have been preserved and published — most are available at fine bookstores and from Amazon.
Road of Hope — The Spiritual Journey of Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan
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