Pope Francis will arrive in South Korea on Thursday for a five-day trip to attend a gathering of Asian Catholic youth and beatify Korean martyrs.
It is the pope's first trip to Asia since he took over the papacy in March last year and the first by a pope to South Korea in 25 years.
During the visit, the pope will lead four Masses, including the closing Mass of the sixth Asian Youth Day, a Catholic youth festival, and another to beatify 124 Korean Catholics killed by the authorities in the 18th and 19th centuries for their faith.
The Holy Father is also scheduled to meet students who survived the April 16 ferry disaster that claimed more than 300 lives and the victims' families.
The survivors and the bereaved families are among those invited to the Masses alongside Korean women forced into sex slavery for the Japanese military during World War II.
Also invited are parties in various social disputes, including laid-off workers of Ssangyong Motor Co. and residents of the southeastern provincial city of Miryang, who have been protesting against a state-run power provider's plan to build extra-high voltage transmission towers.
The Archdiocese of Seoul said it also invited about 10 North Korean Catholics but the North informed the South Korean organizers that they would not attend.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye plans to greet the 77-year-old Argentinian at an airport in Seongnam, just southeast of Seoul, on Thursday morning, Park's office said.
The presidential office said Park's move is designed to "treat (the pope) with honor that befits the status of the world's religious leader."
Park plans to hold an official welcoming ceremony at a garden in the presidential office on Thursday afternoon before holding talks with the pope.
Park and the pope also plan to deliver speeches later at a separate session in the presidential office, according to Park's office.
On Friday, the pontiff will lead a Mass on the feast day of the Assumption of Mary at a soccer stadium in the central city of Daejeon that was a venue for the 2002 Korea-Japan FIFA World Cup.
After the Mass, he will meet and address participants in the sixth Asian Youth Day at the Solmoe Holy Ground, the birthplace of Korea's first priest Kim Tae-gon, in the western port city of Dangjin.
On Saturday, the pope will hold the beatification ceremony for Paul Yun Ji-chung and his 123 companions at Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul after briefly visiting Seosomun Martyrs' Shrine, where the largest number of early Korean Catholics was executed.
It is very unusual for a pope to visit a local church to lead a beatification ceremony.
Also included in the pope's itinerary for the day is a visit to Kkotdongne, a sanatorium complex for the disabled in Eumseong, 131 kilometers south of Seoul, and meetings with some 4,000 Korean nuns and monks and representatives of rank-and-file Catholics.
On Sunday, the pope will meet with Asian bishops at Haemi Martyrs' Shrine in Seosan, 151 kilometers southwest of Seoul, before leading the closing Mass for the Aug. 13-17 Asian Youth Day festival at a nearby historical site.
The pontiff is to celebrate a Mass for peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula at Myeongdong Cathedral on Monday, his final day of the trip.
He will deliver a message of peace for the divided Koreas and East Asia during the Mass, according to sources in the South Korean Catholic Church.
After the Mass, the pope is scheduled to return home after attending a brief send-off ceremony at the airport, wrapping up his five-day trip to South Korea.
South Korea currently has more than 5.4 million Catholics, around 11 percent of the country's population, with about 4,300 priests and 1,500 major seminarians, according to figures from the church. (Yonhap)