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Gerard O’ConnellAugust 13, 2014
Laborers install cross in Seoul, South Korea, for Pope Francis' visit. (CNS photo/ Kim Hong-Ji, Reuters)

On his first visit to Asia as pope, Francis is going to South Korea. He left the Rome airport at four o’clock in the afternoon (local time), today August 13, on board an Alitalia flight.

His main reason for visiting Korea is to participate in the sixth Asian Youth Day that is being held in Daejeon, the country’s fifth metropolis. But he has two other significant reasons for coming here: to beatify 124 Korean martyrs; and to pray for peace and reconciliation on the Korean peninsula, which has been divided since 1953 along the 38th parallel, between a Communist ruled North and a democratically governed South.

He is the third pope to visit Asia and the second (after John Paul II) to visit Korea. On the flight, he is being accompanied by the Cardinal Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, the Cardinal President of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, Stanislaw Rylko, and the ‘Substitute’ of the Secretariat of State, Archbishop Angelo Becciu, together with other Vatican officials, and personal bodyguards.

Cardinal Fernando Filoni, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, had been scheduled to travel with the pope, but he has sent him instead as his personal envoy to Iraq where violence of all kinds has led to the persecution of Christians and other minorities. Francis wants to convey his closeness to these suffering people at this dramatic moment in their lives.

Seventy-two journalists from media outlets across the globe, including America’s Vatican correspondent, are also travelling with Francis on this first visit by a pope to Asia in 25 years.

The 5,573 mile journey from Rome to Korea takes eleven and a half hours, and after flying over China’s airspace—the first pope ever to do so—he will touch down at the Air Base in Seoul at 10:30 a.m. on Aug. 14. There he will be welcomed by the South Korean President, Park Geun-hye, and the President of the Korean Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Peter U-il Kang, together with other dignitaries.

This is Francis’ first visit to Korea, a peninsula between China and Japan, known as the “Land of Morning Calm”, or also called the “Hermit Kingdom.’ He is coming to a divided peninsula that has throughout history been a bridge between the cultures of its two great neighbors, often politically dependent from them and for some time even occupied by them.

He is only visiting South Korea, a country of some 50 million people, and Asia’s fourth largest economic power. The Vatican said he will not go to pray at the border between North and South, as some had speculated based on what he did during his visit to the Holy Land. But that division of the Koreas will be on his mind throughout, and on his last day here, Aug. 18, he will celebrate mass for peace and reconciliation in this peninsula.

He is happy to come to South Korea, a country where religious freedom is respected (unlike North Korea), and which had officially invited his predecessor, Benedict XVI, no less than 6 times. Christians count for 29.2 percent of the Korean population (Protestants 18.3 percent and Catholics 10.9 percent), Buddhists total 22.8 percent, while 45 percent of profess no faith.

As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis knew much about Korea because of the presence there of a Catholic community of some 15,000 Koreans. Significantly too, earlier this year, as pope, he appointed a Korean priest as one of the auxiliary bishops of Buenos Aires.

He has always been fascinated by the Korean Church because, unique in the history of evangelization, it came to believe in Christ not because of the work of missionaries but because of the effort of lay people from within Korea itself.

He is well aware that, as the historical record shows, Christianity and Catholicism came to this land because Korean scholars learned about it during their visits to Beijing, and brought back from there some books on Christianity, including a well-known one, The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven,  written in 1603 by Father Matteo Ricci, the famous Jesuit missionary who brought Christianity to the heart of China’s Imperial Court. One of these Korean scholars, Yi Sung-Hun, later went to Beijing and asked to be baptized, and subsequently he baptized other Koreans on his return home in 1784. Indeed, the first Korean Catholic community had some 4,000 faithful before a Chinese priest, Zhu Mun-Mo, arrived from Beijing, more than a decade later, but soon he too would die a martyr.

Pope Francis sees all this as the wonderful work of the Holy Spirit. He is fascinated by the fact that lay people founded this Church, and by the Jesuit link to all this through the writings of Matteo Ricci and the Jesuits in Beijing. Interestingly too, there is another Jesuit link on this visit because the newly appointed Jesuit Provincial of Korea, Fr. John Chong Che-chon, will act as interpreter for the pope throughout his visit here. He speaks Spanish well, having done his doctoral studies in Spain.

The first Latin American pope in history has great admiration for this church, which is built on the martyrdom of no less that 10,000 of its faithful, the overwhelming majority of whom were laypeople - men, women, teenagers and even children. He is sure to recall ‘the memory’ of all this during his visit here, and especially on Aug. 16 at the beatification ceremony of 124 martyrs from the very first period of the church’s existence in this land.

Pope Francis is full of wonder at the amazing growth of the Korean Catholic Church over the past half-century: it had 500,000 faithful in 1960 but today has 5.39 million. Furthermore, some 100,000 adults are baptized into this church each year. Nowhere else in Asia is this happening, and certainly nowhere in any advanced industrialized society. Before the pope’s visit here the local church had hoped that by the year 2020 Catholics could become 20 percent of the population, and now with the expected boost from his visit their hopes are even higher.

It will be most interesting to see what the Argentine pope has to say to this church, which, again most unusually, is not so much a church of the poor and downtrodden, but rather a church that is rich—it is ranked number 8 in the contributors to the Vatican’s coffers,and one that is well inserted into the middle and upper echelons of Korean society, and its intellectual elite. It is also a missionary church, and sends priests to many countries in Asia and elsewhere too. Francis, as is well known, wants a church that is poor and for the poor, and one that is reaching out to the peripheries. Many are waiting to see what he will ask of the Korean Church.

On the eve of his arrival, there is also great expectation and interest in what Pope Francis will say not only to the Asian bishops but also to the young Asian Catholics from most of the countries of this vast continent where 60 percent of the world’s youth live, but where full religious freedom is far from guaranteed or respected. He will meet these young people at Daejeon on Aug. 15, which for Catholics is the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady into Heaven but for all Koreans is the anniversary of their country’s liberation from the Japanese occupation in 1945.

Francis will meet the young Asian Catholics for the last time on Aug. 17 when he celebrates the concluding mass of the Asian Youth Day.

Koreans are expected to give Pope Francis a warm welcome during his visit here. They greatly admire him for his humility and concern for the poor, which they know about from the media, and they are particularly proud as a nation that this most popular pope has chosen their homeland as the first country that he visits in Asia.

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