His visit was widely predicted. In multiple news reports, sources at the Vatican and Seoul had said the papal visit was highly likely.
Still, the announcement by the Vatican on Monday was a source of surprise, and of course joy, for many Catholics here because the holy man decided to commit the entire five days of his trip to Asia, his first as pontiff, to Korea.
Since becoming pope a year ago, he has received invitations from a number of countries in the region, including Sri Lanka, and spoken of his desire to visit the region.
|Pope Francis meets Korean Catholic priests in the Vatican City in August last year. (Yonhap)|
He has made only one trip internationally so far ― to Brazil in July last year ― and is due to visit sites in the Holy Land in May. So the Aug. 14-18. Korean visit will be his third overseas outing.
In the official announcement, the Vatican cited the Sixth Asian Youth Day scheduled for the southern diocese of Daejeon as the purpose of the papal visit.
Still, it seems that many followers here would like to regard it as the latest in a series of acts by the leader of the Roman Catholic Church to give some leverage to the country’s fledging and fast-growing church.
In one such act of recognition, the Pope elevated Seoul Archbishop Andrew Yeom Soo-jung to cardinal along with 18 others in February, making him the third Korean to reach the second-highest post in the Catholic Church.
Earlier, Pope Francis also decided to beatify 124 Koreans who were killed under the religious persecution against the Catholics in the late 18th century.
“Never in my dreams did I think the Pope would come to the Daejeon diocese,” said Bishop Lazarus You Heung-sik of the diocese, calling the visit something “miraculous.”
Many religion experts say the Korean Church deserves the spotlight of the Catholic community which has witnessed dwindling public trust and “an exodus” ― as Pope Francis said in a speech ― of membership in Europe.
A number of reasons are cited. First, Korea has a unique place in Catholic history, being the only country in the world that accepted the faith spontaneously by its people themselves, not by foreign missionaries.
Despite its short history ― Catholicism began here about 200 years ago ― some 10,000 Koreans are believed to have died for their faith.
The first group ― made up of 103 martyrs ― was canonized altogether by John Paul II in 1984.
“The Korean Church is unique because it was founded entirely by lay people. This fledgling Church, so young and yet so strong in faith, withstood wave after wave of harsh persecution. Thus, in less than a century, it could boast of 10,000 martyrs,” he said during his visit here to beautify them in 1984. He is the only pope to have come to Korea. Pope John paid his second visit to Korea in 1989.
Now the third largest religious denomination in Korea, Catholicism is the fastest growing of all major religions in the country. It is also the most respected of all, polls show.
As of 2011, there were 5.52 million Catholics in Korea, making up roughly 10 percent of the population. It represents a threefold jump from 1985.
A poll conducted last year found that Catholicism has the highest level of public confidence; Roughly 30 percent of people surveyed regarded it as the most trustworthy faith.
During his five-day visit, the pope will meet with President Park Geun-hye and preside over the opening Mass for the Asian Youth Day in Daejeon. Catholic followers from more than 15 countries are expected to attend the Aug. 13-17 event. He will be the first pope to attend the gathering.
The pontiff will also carry out a beatification ceremony for the 124 Korean martyrs including Paul Yun Ji-chung, who were killed in the late 18th century for renouncing Confucianism, the ruling ideology of the Joseon era (1392-1910). Further details of the ceremony, including its venue, are yet to be finalized.
By Lee Sun-young (firstname.lastname@example.org)