When Pope Francis arrives in Korea Thursday morning, he will find a nation that is thirsting for comfort, a caring touch and words of wisdom from a leader known for walking with his flock.
The pope’s five-day visit at the invitation of President Park Geun-hye and the bishops of Korea will be the first papal visit to Korea in 25 years. The last trip was made by St. John Paul II in 1989, following a 1984 trip on which he canonized 103 Korean martyrs.
The highlight of the pope’s visit is the open-air Mass for the beatification of 124 Korean martyrs to be held in Gwanghwamun Plaza on Saturday morning. Authorities estimate that over 500,000 people will converge at the downtown plaza, including some 170,000 people who have been officially invited to the Mass.
The pope will also celebrate Mass with young Asian Catholics participating in the sixth Asian Youth Day in Daejeon, the first pope to personally participate. The pope is also to meet with Asian bishops during his first papal visit to Asia, which is characterized as a pastoral visit.
While the visit is aimed at tending to Catholics in Korea and Asia, peace on the Korean Peninsula also looms large on the pope’s agenda. On his last day in Korea, the pontiff will celebrate a Mass for peace and reconciliation at Seoul’s Myeongdong Cathedral. While ruling out a papal visit to the heavily armed Demilitarized Zone, the Vatican said the problem of national division would be central to his thoughts during the visit.
Pope Francis, who derives his papal name from St. Francis of Assisi who worked with the poor, will meet with the sick, the downtrodden and the marginalized in society. At Kkottongnae in Eumseong, a rehabilitation center that is home to 5,000 residents, he will meet with the homeless, the disabled and alcoholics. The pope is also scheduled to meet with the survivors and families of the victims of the Sewol ferry disaster, workers laid off by Ssangyong Motor, families of the those who died in a fire while protesting forcible eviction in Yongsan, villagers protesting the building of a Naval base on Jejudo Island, as well as residents of Miryang who are protesting the erection of transmission towers. The pope has also invited women who were forced into military sex slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II to the Mass at Myeongdong Cathedral.
One of the pope’s often-repeated messages is “walk with the flock,” and his visit here is an embodiment of that message. He is walking with the weakest of the flock.
The pope is much respected by Koreans ― Catholics and non-Catholics alike ― for his compassion for the poor, his humble ways and his extraordinary ordinariness. His message of love for the poor and the weak resonates among Koreans who have suffered through the Korean War, national division and separation of families across the border; and who now see growing disparity between the haves and have-nots, have witnessed senseless loss of life in a ferry disaster, and have discovered unspeakable cruelty taking place in the military barracks.
Despair and hopelessness hang heavy over us lately. We breathe in gloom, and our hearts are heavy with our helplessness. This is why we await the pope with much anticipation regardless of our creed: We are in need of someone to walk among us, listen to us, comfort us and inspire us to become the light and salt of the world, to make a difference.