Pope Beatifies Korean martyrs in front of millions

Hundreds of thousands of people turned out on Saturday for one of the highlights of the Pope’s trip to South Korea: The beatification of 124 Koreans killed for their faith over two centuries before.

The streets leading up to Gwanghwamun Gate were packed with Koreans honoring the Catholics who founded the church in Korea in the 18th century. Korea’s church is unique in that it was founded not by missionaries or priests who brought the faith to the peninsula and converted people, 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 like other nations in the area had done, notably China and Japan.

Police declined to give an estimate of the crowd size, but media reported that it had topped 1 million. The number of Korean Catholics in the country are estimated to be about 3 million.

“I’m so thankful that the pope visited South Korea,” said Yu Pil-sang, a Catholic who was trying to get a glimpse of the pope just outside the barricade. “But I’m so sorry that all the ways to see the pope are blocked. I came to hear at least his voice.”

In his homily, Francis talked about the sacrifices the martyrs made:

“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 stated in the address. “They challenge us to think about what, if anything, we ourselves would be willing to die for.”

He praised the fact that ordinary people were so crucial to the church’s foundation and growth in Korea. The church is counting on laymen and women to spread the faith in Asia, which the Vatican considers the future of church growth.

En route to the altar before Mass, Francis stopped his car so he could bless a group of families who lost loved ones in the April ferry sinking, in which more than 300 people were killed.

“We want the truth,” read a yellow banner at the site, which is a reference to the families’ demands for an independent inquiry into the sinking.

The main figure in the group that was beatified is an individual named Paul Yun Ji-Chung, who was born in 1759 and was among the earliest Catholics in the country. He was beheaded in 1791 after he violated the traditional Confucian funeral rites for his mother. Historians say that Korea’s early believers were struck by the idea of a religion that preached universal equality in divine eyes at a time when the discriminatory hierarchical system brutally exploited the ordinary people.

St. John Paul II canonized 103 martyrs during his visit to South Korea in 1984, which was the last time that a Pope visited the country before this week.

Francis began his day by praying at a monument in Seoul commemorating the martyrs on the site where many of them were killed.

He was supposed to have baptized the father of one of the victims who asked Francis to perform it, but a spokesman for the organizing committee of the trip, Rev. Mattias Hur Young-yup, said that the baptism would actually take place on Sunday.