Pope Francis arrived in South Korea on Thursday on his first visit to Asia as pontiff, a sign of the growing importance the church is placing on the continent, where Roman Catholics are a small but growing minority.
Before the pope’s departure from Rome, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican's secretary of state, told the Holy See’s television network that “the pope is going there to address the entire continent, not just Korea.” Pope Francis is to spend five days in South Korea on the first papal visit to Asia since John Paul II traveled to India in 1999.
After his plane arrived Thursday morning, the pope was driven into Seoul, waving out the open backseat window of a small sedan. The pope reportedly declined to travel in a bulletproof vehicle while in South Korea, opting for an ordinary, locally made car instead.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye greeted the pope at the airport and the two held a meeting in the afternoon at the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential office.
The papal visit comes at a time when South Korea is still grieving over the April sinking of the Sewol ferry, in which more than 300 people died, most of them students. Park thanked the pope for making South Korea the first country he has visited in Asia.
“I believe that Pope Francis’s visit will provide us with hope, and through his visit our pain will be healed,” Park said, referring to the ferry disaster.
About 10% of South Korea’s population of 50 million is Catholic, and the ranks of adherents have been growing significantly in recent decades, in contrast to the U.S. and Europe, where the number of Catholics has been in decline. Pope John Paul II visited South Korea in 1984 and 1989.
Francis thanked his South Korean hosts and highlighted the goals of justice, peace and unity. “We cannot become discouraged in our pursuit of these goals, which are for the good not only of the Korean people, but of the entire region and the whole world,” he said.
Although the pope is not visiting other countries in Asia, observers were closely watching for any signs that the trip might yield some breakthrough in relations between the Vatican and China.
The Chinese government granted permission for Francis’ plane to fly through Chinese airspace on his way to South Korea. The Vatican and China do not have diplomatic relations, and China’s Communist rulers reject papal authority over Chinese Catholics.
In 1995, when Pope John Paul II flew to the Philippines, his plane was denied permission to enter Chinese airspace.
It is customary for popes to send telegrams to the leaders of countries whose airspace they traverse, and Francis sent a message wishing China “divine blessings of peace and well-being upon the nation.”
But a spokesman for the Committee for the Papal Visit to Korea told Reuters that about half of more than 100 Chinese who intended to attend an Asian Youth Day event in South Korea during the pope's visit would not be making the journey. Heo Young-yeop, the spokesman, said the cancellation was due to "a complicated situation inside China." Another unnamed organizer told Reuters that some of the Chinese had been detained.
Spokespeople at the official media center said they could not confirm the reports. The Asian Youth Day Mass is to be held Friday in Daejeon, a midsized city about two hours’ drive south of Seoul, and is expected to draw Catholic youth from all over the continent.
Another expected highlight of the pope’s trip is a ceremony to beatify 124 Korean martyrs, to be held Saturday morning in central Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square.
The martyrs were slain by the rulers of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty in the 18thand 19thcenturies. The rulers of the time persecuted Catholics, largely on the grounds that their faith led them to stray from traditional Confucian practices.
The papal visit takes place at a time of heightened tensions between South and North Korea. On Thursday, North Korea fired five short-range rockets off its east coast, the South Korean military said. The first three were launched shortly before the pope landed, followed by two more in the early afternoon.
Thursday’s launches could be an effort by Pyongyang to draw attention to itself while the pope is in South Korea, and may also be a way of voicing displeasure with annual U.S.-South Korea military exercises that are scheduled to start Monday.
Pyongyang routinely objects to the exercises, calling them a rehearsal for an invasion of North Korean territory. The U.S. and South Korea maintain that the exercises are defensive in nature.
On Monday, the pope is to lead a Mass for peace and reconciliation with North Korea at Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul. North Korea reportedly declined an invitation from the Archdiocese of Seoul to send a delegation of North Korean Catholics to participate in the service.
Since taking over the papacy in March 2013, 77-year-old Francis has placed special emphasis on embracing the poor and vulnerable. While in South Korea, he is scheduled to meet with laid-off workers, people with physical disabilities and families who lost loved ones in the Sewol sinking.
Brother Anthony An Son-jae, a professor recently retired from Sogang University in Seoul, said he and many others were looking forward to the papal visit with great anticipation.
“The pope has arrived with a message of hope at a time when there aren’t many guides to meaningful living,” he said. “People are fed up with corruption and materialism and looking for something more.”
Borowiec is a special correspondent.