SEOUL, South Korea—Pope Francis beatified 124 early Korean martyrs on Saturday at a Mass in Seoul and challenged the massive crowd to ask what values they might be willing to die for in an increasingly materialistic, globalized world.
“They challenge us to think about what, if anything, we ourselves would be willing to die for,” the Pope said in his homily.
“Their 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,” he said.
Hundreds of thousands of believers, most of them invited church groups from across South Korea, attended the open-air ceremony, held in hot, humid conditions in Gwanghwamun plaza, the city’s main ceremonial thoroughfare.
Police declined to give an estimate of the crowd size, but local media reported it had topped 1 million. The number was significant given that Catholics represent only about 10 percent of South Korea’s 50 million people.
The centerpiece of the Pope’s five-day visit, the beatification Mass, was the subject of a massive security operation, with bridges, roads and subway stations closed and police snipers posted on the roofs of overlooking office buildings, which had their windows sealed.
“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,” he said.
“The Pope emphasizes love, and I have to see him. I feel so bad,” Yu said.
The most prominent among those beatified was an 18th-century nobleman, Paul Yun Ji-chung, who became Korea’s first Catholic martyr when he was executed in 1791 after clashing with Confucian officials.
According to the Church, around 10,000 Koreans were martyred in the first 100 years after Catholicism was introduced to the peninsula in 1784.
Pope John Paul II canonized 103 martyrs when he visited South Korea in 1984.
The new tyranny
Continuing the theme that has dominated his visit and that he has been repeating since he arrived on Thursday for his first trip to Asia since his election in March 2013, the Pope said the lessons to be learned from the martyrs were as important as ever in an era marked more by selfishness and greed than sacrifice.
“They knew the cost of discipleship … and were willing to make great sacrifices,” Francis said in his sermon after the brief beatification ceremony, which gives the martyrs the title “blessed” and marks their first step toward sainthood.
He said the martyrs’ courage and charity and their rejection of the rigid social structure of their day should be an inspiration for people today.
Christ “continues to call out to us to love and serve him by tending to our brothers and sisters in need,” the Pope said.
The theme has been the linchpin of the papacy for the first non-European Pontiff in 1,300 years.
Last year, in the first major written work of his papacy, Francis attacked unfettered capitalism as “a new tyranny,” urging global leaders to fight poverty and growing inequality.
Rapid economic growth has made South Korea one of the world’s wealthiest countries, but it has also become increasingly unequal, with nearly half of the elderly in poverty.
Up to 1 million people had been expected to converge on the venue for the Mass, although only 200,000 who preregistered were allowed to pass through dozens of metal detectors placed along a 4.5-kilometer-long security ring around the main plaza.
Some arrived hours before dawn, and whiled away the time reading the Bible in small groups.
South Korea has a fast-growing Catholic community that punches well above its minority weight in one of Christianity’s most muscular Asian strongholds.
As the sun rose, Gwanghwamun boulevard was already crammed with spectators for a 1-km stretch north of City Hall.
The papal stage, topped with a giant cross, stood at the top of the boulevard, backed by the giant tiled roof of the Joseon Dynasty Gyeongbokgung Palace.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, unrepentant Catholics were generally paraded from Gwanghwamun southwest to Seosomun Gate where they were publicly executed.
Francis began the day at the Seosomun shrine commemorating the martyrs on the site where many of them were killed, and then made the journey of the condemned in reverse to Gwanghwamun, riding in an open-topped vehicle and waving to the ecstatic crowds on either side.
“It was so moving. The Pope felt like such a caring, kind grandfather figure,” Lee Young-hee, a 58-year-old housewife, told Agence France-Presse.
“My heart is swelling. The weather was hot but all I could feel was happiness,” she said.
The scene was impressive, with thousands of people neatly packed into fenced-in sections leading away from the altar, which was set up in front of Gwanghwamun, the south gate to Gyeongbokgung Palace, with Inwang mountain looming above and the presidential Blue House on its lower slopes. Police in green vests stood guard along the barricades and volunteers handed out water to guard against the warm, humid temperatures.
Comforts ferry disaster kin
Organizers had been concerned about the relatives of the victims of the April Sewol ferry disaster, who have been camped out in Gwanghwamun for weeks to push their campaign for a full, independent inquiry into the tragedy, which claimed 300 lives—most of them schoolchildren.
In the end, 600 family members were invited to attend the Mass, effectively incorporating the protest into the event.
As he passed by, the Pope stopped and stepped down from his vehicle to greet the relatives, including Kim Young-oh, whose daughter died in the disaster and who has been on a hunger strike for more than one month.
“I am a Buddhist but I think the Pope can help us,” said Choi Keum-bok, a construction worker who lost his son in the disaster.
On his white cassock, Francis wore a yellow ribbon given to him by the families a day earlier when he met with them privately to try to console them.
“We want the truth,” read a yellow banner, a reference to the families’ demands for an independent inquiry into the sinking.
The Pope was supposed to have baptized the father of one of the Sewol victims who asked Francis to perform the sacrament. But a spokesperson for the organizing committee of the trip, Rev. Mattias Hur Young-yup, said the baptism would take place on Sunday.
After the Mass, the Pope traveled to a hilltop community for the sick and disabled in Kkottongnae, around 80 km south of Seoul. Reports from AFP and AP