Only slightly past 7 am things were already bustling around the Nunciature of Seoul. In truth the spectacular Korean sunrise on this Saturday, 16 August, was even livelier with the people swarming around the square across from Pontiff's residence, hoping to catch just a glimpse of or even a greeting from Pope Francis. The third day of his journey in the “Land of the Morning Calm” began very early. This was to be the day that the Church of the future reflected on the glory of her past, by faithfully retracing the footsteps.
The Pontiff dedicated the morning to Korean martyrs, first at the Shrine of the Martyrs of Seo So Mun. Here he paid homage to the 103 martyrs who, massacred at this site, were canonized by John Paul ii in 1985. Joined in silent prayer by two young people, Pope Francis placed a wreath of flowers there. And prayer was the truly the day's theme, like a chain linking the martyrs recognized in 1985 to those who can be considered their fathers. In fact, on this day, Pope Francis beatified 124 martyrs whose sacrifice goes back to the very origins of the Church in Korea. And more links are to be added to join this glorious past to the future of the Korean Church.
A future represented by zealous religious men and women and by laypeople called to follow in the footsteps of that group of scholars who, in their secret mountain refuge, studied those few words which arrived from China, the precious seed of the Jesuit Matteo Ricci, and who, embracing the faith with commitment, spread the Gospel in their country. A shrine stands today in that secret refuge, where five of these wise men, considered the true fathers of the Church in Korea, were buried after being martyred. Although the Pope was unable to go there, the story and the devotion it carries are well known to him.
The rite of Beatification took place in a meaningful place, Gwanghwamun Gate, literally the “gate of light”, and the symbol of Korean identity. It is in Seoul's most evocative square, where past and present continue to intertwine. The square faces the ancient imperial castle, which is still “guarded” by statues of two great leaders, and surrounded by bold skyscrapers. A ten-lane road opens onto this enormous square, and together they held at least a million people this morning.
They came from every part of Korea. Travelling hundreds of kilometres to take part in this event, 60,000 people came from from Inchon, a port city east of Seoul. Country dance groups came from Pusan, distinguishable in the crowd by their colourful costumes. A pilgrimage of mostly women, identifiable by a white veil on each of their heads, arrived from Kwang Ju.
The Pope took some time to travel among the crowd, greeting them from a white convertible car.
The Mass was concelebrated by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State, Cardinal Stanisław Riłko, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, Archbishop Angelo Becciu, Substitute of the Secretary of State, Apostolic Nuncio Padilla and about five dozen bishops and archbishops from throughout Asia.
Instead of the traditional tapestries, images of the lives of the newly beatified flowed across giant screens flanking the altar. There were also symbolic drawings, occasionally little stars. During the Homily, the Pope added many other representations of those so many nameless martyrs who in Korea, as in Asia and in the entire world, offered and today still offer their life for the Christian faith. And naturally, his thoughts went to the Christians of Iraq.
In the afternoon he was off by helicopter to Kkottongnae, meaning “hill of flowers”, which is the site of various charitable institutes. The Pope visited the House of Hope, a shelter for approximately 200 disabled people, children and adults, where he was welcomed by the founder of the community, Fr John Oh Woong Jin. Bishop Gabriel Chang Bong-hun of Cheongju and many festive people were also present.
Out of respect Francis removed his shoes before entering the center's various structures. There were no formalities and no speech by the Pontiff, just a brief greeting by the Bishop before the children sang and danced to traditional music for the Pope and also offered him gifts they had made. He interacted amiably with the children of the care home for more than an hour before he had to leave them. The images of those moments are poignant as always.
As he left the institute he was accompanied by an exceptional choir, a choir of about homeless people. They have nothing, much less a home, but nevertheless they live the joy of their faith, the assisting priest explained. And this day they sang for the Pope.
The Pope then went to the nearby School of Love, were he was awaited by thousands of Korean men and women religious. Along the way the motorcade stopped at what would seem to be a common flower garden, were it not for the hundreds of little white crosses in place of flowers. Pope Francis got out of the car and went toward a group of people who were waiting for him, with whom he shared a few words and a silent prayer.
He had arrived at the “cemetery of aborted babies”, a place particularly emblematic of the country's still very serious social situation. Despite its exquisite hospitality and kindness, Korea's society is very closed off and tends toward autonomy in every field. It has great technological and industrial potential but raw materials are scarce. And rather than consider importing, and thus combined foreign trade, it tends to limit population growth. No special laws. Instead it adopts economic and fiscal policies which discourage large families. And abortion is a fairly common practice.
Several Korean Pro Life activists spoke about it with the Pope. He also heard the touching testimony of Lee Gu-won, a consecrated lay missionary of St Luke Hwang without arms or legs. His dire condition never discouraged his and most importantly did not stop his from witnessing what is possible with the love of and for Christ. Many embraced the Christian face precisely thanks to Lee. The encounter with Pope Francis was moving beyond all expectations.
After travelling two kilometres between two wings of crowds the Pope arrived at the spiritual center where, in a lovely chapel, he was welcomed by about 200 laypeople active in the apostolate. For their reflection, Pope Francis proposed the topics of the credibility of the Christian witness, women's contribution to the Church's mission, and safeguarding the Christian family.
It was shortly after 8:00 that evening when the Bishop of Rome arrived back at the Nunciature in Seoul, closing the third, very full and rich day. (mario ponzi)
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