Pope Francis beatified 124 martyrs before a crowd of hundreds of thousands here Saturday, and called on South Koreans to heed their example of sacrifice in a world of growing poverty and inequality.
The beatification Mass was one of the main events of the pontiff’s five-day trip to South Korea. The martyrs were among the thousands of Korean Catholics persecuted in the 18th and 19th centuries, mostly because their faith conflicted with the traditional Confucian norms that dominated Korea at the time. The 124 beatified Saturday were killed for refusing to renounce their Christian beliefs.
Security was tight in the heart of the South Korean capital, with nearby streets, bridges and subway stations shut down. Snipers were posted on roofs, and surrounding buildings were forced to close for the day.
The 77-year-old pope rode along downtown Seoul’s main stretch, from City Hall to Gwanghwamun Square, greeting onlookers and leaning out of his vehicle to kiss small children. Many of the attendees wore pink cardboard visors provided by the organizers to block the hot sun that beat down throughout the ceremony.
Throughout the service the pope wore a yellow ribbon pinned to his cassock to commemorate the more than 300 people lost in the April sinking of the Sewol ferry off South Korea’s south coast.
The pontiff disembarked from his vehicle to bless Kim Young-oh, the father of a high school student who died in the ferry tragedy. Kim and other bereaved relatives have been holding a hunger strike in Gwanghwamun Square, seeking the passage of a law that would mandate a special investigation into the disaster.
The pope is in the midst of a five-day visit to South Korea, his first trip to Asia since assuming the papacy in March 2013. He has been greeted by large and enthusiastic crowds in South Korea, a country whose Roman Catholic minority has grown significantly in recent decades. According to Statistics Korea, today there are more than 5 million Catholics in South Korea, up from 2.95 million in 1995.
“I’m just so moved,” said Kim Young-ja, 56, just after the pope passed by her. “I’m so glad he has come here to bless us.”
In his remarks, the pope called for greater charity for the poor, saying the martyrs’ “example has much to say to us who live in societies where, alongside immense wealth, dire poverty is silently growing; where the cry of the poor is seldom heeded.”
The pope’s emphasis on helping the poor and disadvantaged, a key theme of his papacy, has struck a chord in South Korea, where ostentatious displays of wealth and status are common. Poverty in South Korea is not widespread, but more than half of South Koreans older than 65 live in poverty. Income inequality is also a growing concern. In 2011, South Korea’s Gini coefficient -- a key measure of inequality -- was 0.311, more pronounced than the 0.306 where the gauge stood in 2006.
After arriving on Thursday the pontiff met with President Park Geun-hye and with South Korean bishops. He led a Mass on Friday at World Cup Stadium in Daejeon, a couple of hours south of Seoul, and attended a meeting with young Catholics at Asian Youth Day.
After Saturday’s Mass the pope traveled outside Seoul to a welfare facility for the disabled and elderly in Kkottongnae, which translates as “flower village.” Sunday he is scheduled to meet with bishops from around Asia and preside over Asian Youth Day’s closing Mass.
The pope will conclude his trip Monday by leading a Mass for peace and reconciliation with North Korea at Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul. The cathedral is a site of great importance to South Korean Catholics for having been a place of refuge for dissidents during the county's tense democratization movement of the late 1980s. North Korea declined an invitation to send a delegation.
Borowiec is a Los Angeles Times special correspondent.