SEOUL, South Korea – Pope Francis beatified 124 Korean martyrs today, telling hundreds of thousands of people who turned out for his open-air Mass that their ancestors’ willingness to die rather than renounce their faith two centuries ago was a model for Asian missionaries today.
The streets leading up to Seoul’s iconic Gwanghwamun Gate were packed with Koreans honoring the lay Catholics who founded the church here in the 18th century. Korea’s church is unique in that it was founded not by foreign missionary priests – as occurred in most of the world – but by members of Korea’s own noble classes who learned of Christianity by reading books 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.
Police declined to give an estimate of the crowd size, but the Vatican said some 800,000 people had turned out. 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 were 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.”
Francis praised in particular the fact that laypeople were so crucial to the church’s foundation and growth in Korea – a theme he was expected to develop later in the day when he meets with leaders of lay movements. The church is counting on such laymen and women to spread the faith in Asia, which the Vatican considers the future of the church.
A collective cheer erupted from the masses when Francis declared the 124 “blessed” – the first step toward possible sainthood.
En route to the altar before 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, 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.