SEOUL, South Korea — Hundreds of thousands of people turned out Saturday for one of the highlights of Pope Francis’ trip to South Korea: The beatification of 124 Koreans killed for their faith more than 200 years ago.
The streets leading up to Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Gate were packed with Koreans honoring the ordinary lay Roman Catholics who founded the church here in the 18th century. Korea’s church is unique in that it was founded not by missionaries or priests who converted people — as occurred in most of the world — but by members of Korea’s noble classes who learned of Christianity by reading about it.
These early Catholics were killed in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Joseon Dynasty, which tried to shut the Korean Peninsula off from Western influence.
A collective cheer erupted when Francis declared the 124 “blessed,” the first step toward possible sainthood. Many of the women in the crowd wore lace veils; others sported paper sun visors with “Papa Francesco” written across them.
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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.
In his homily, Francis said the lessons of the martyrs are relevant today for Korea’s church, which is small but growing and is seen as a model for the rest of the world.
“They were willing to make great sacrifices and let themselves be stripped of whatever kept them from Christ — possessions and land, prestige and honor — for they knew that Christ alone was their true treasure,” he said. “They challenge us to think about what, if anything, we ourselves would be willing to die for.”
He praised in particular the fact that ordinary lay people were so crucial to the church’s foundation and growth in Korea.
En route to the Mass, Francis stopped his open-topped car so he could get out and bless a group of families who lost loved ones in the April Sewol ferry sinking, in which more than 300 people, most of them high-school students, were killed. On his white cassock, he wore a yellow ribbon given to him by the families a day earlier when he met with them privately.
The main figure in the group that was beatified is Paul Yun Ji-Chung, who was born in 1759 and was among the earliest Catholics on the peninsula. He was beheaded in 1791 — the first Korean martyr — after he violated the traditional Confucian funeral rites for his mother.
In all, the Joseon Dynasty killed about 10,000 Catholics.
Francis began his day by praying at a monument in Seoul commemorating the martyrs on the site where many of them were killed.
During his first public Mass, on Friday in the central city of Daejeon, the pope called for Catholics to combat the allure of materialism.
During his homily, Francis urged the faithful to reject “inhuman” economic policies that disenfranchise the poor and “the spirit of unbridled competition which generates selfishness and strife.”
It’s a theme he has raised frequently during his pontificate, railing against the “idolatry of money” and the excesses of capitalism that leave the poorest on the margins of society.
Francis stressed his message again late Friday during a meeting with some 6,000 young Catholics from 23 nations gathered in the sanctuary town of Solmoe, where Korea’s first Catholic priest was born. “We see signs of an idolatry of wealth, power and pleasure, which come at a high cost to human lives,” he said.
Many South Koreans are proud of the doggedness that has lifted the country from the destruction of the Korean War in the 1950s into Asia’s fourth-biggest economy. Competition is a fact of life, and those who succeed are often lionized. The flip-side is stress, misery and the rich world’s highest suicide rate.
Francis referred to the toll such competition can cause, saying it can lead to an emptiness and despair that grows “like a cancer” in society.
“Upon how many of our young has this despair taken its toll,” he said.