In the midst of a five-day visit to South Korea, Pope Francis continued to draw enthusiastic crowds Saturday, speaking on one of his favorite topics — charity — and also making an implicit statement on the hot-button issue of abortion.
Hundreds of thousands of people gathered for a beatification Mass in South Korea’s capital, Seoul, where the pope declared as “blessed” 124 Koreans killed for their Catholic faith more than two centuries ago, a first step toward their possible sainthood.
During the service, the pontiff also 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 those older than 65 live in poverty. Income inequality is also a growing concern.
During his visit, his first to Asia, his most widely reported comments thus far have concerned inequality and what he has called “inhumane economic models.”
Also Saturday, he visited a welfare facility for the disabled and elderly south of Seoul, praying at a monument for aborted fetuses. Many children at the facility were given up by their families because they were born with disabilities.
Abortion is illegal in South Korea except in cases of rape and incest. Mothers raising children out of wedlock face a strong stigma here, as do people with physical and mental disabilities.
The pope has been greeted by large and enthusiastic crowds in his visit to South Korea, a country whose Roman Catholic minority has grown significantly in recent decades. According to Statistics Korea, there are now 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.”
Security was tight Saturday 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.
Throughout the service Saturday, 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 on a hunger strike in Gwanghwamun Square, seeking the passage of a law that would mandate a special investigation of the disaster.
After arriving Thursday, the pontiff met with President Park Geun-hye and South Korean bishops. He said a Mass on Friday at World Cup Stadium in Daejeon, about 100 miles south of Seoul, and attended a meeting with young Catholics at Asian Youth Day.
He is scheduled to meet with bishops from around Asia and say Asian Youth Day’s closing Mass on Sunday.
The pope is due 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 special correspondent.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Aug. 16, 8:15 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout.