A symbol of peace, love and new understanding, Pope Francis will arrive in Korea on Thursday for a five-day official visit to a nation still gripped by Cold War geopolitics.
A chartered flight carrying the leader of the Roman Catholic Church and his entourage from the Vatican is expected to land at Seoul Air Base, just south of Seoul, at around 10:30 a.m. Thursday.
President Park Geun-hye will welcome him at the airport, Cheong Wa Dae said Wednesday.
“(The president) will treat (the pope) with the honor that befits the status of the world’s religious leader,” the presidential office said.
This is the first papal visit to this country with a 5.4 million-strong Catholic community since Pope John Paul II’s in 1989.
|A large banner welcoming Pope Francis hangs in Seoul on Wednesday as the country awaits his arrival. (Yonhap)|
In the 25 years since the last papal visit, the Korean Catholic Church has grown remarkably to account for about 10 percent of the population.
In tandem, the challenges it faces have grown too, as the country struggles with a high suicide rate, a low birthrate, rapid socioeconomic polarization and a stalled process for reunification with communist North Korea.
During his stay here, the pope is widely expected to offer a message of hope and love for the Korean people.
The pontiff’s schedule, however, is predominantly spiritual, focusing on early Korean martyrs and Asian youths, who will gather in Daejeon for a festival.
Shuttling by helicopter between the capital and rural towns in the country’s central regions, he is scheduled to visit sacred sites, meet with the faithful and attend liturgical events, which will be topped off by a large-scale outdoor Mass on Aug. 16 to beatify 124 Korean martyrs.
He is also scheduled to visit a Catholic-run welfare facility and console beleaguered families and survivors of a ferry disaster that killed over 300 in April.
Before his departure on Aug. 18, he will celebrate another Mass at Seoul’s Myeongdong Cathedral for peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula.
After his arrival on Thursday, the pontiff will hold a private Mass at the Apostolic Nunciature in Seoul, his home for the entire Korean schedule, and meet with President Park, senior government officials and Korean bishops.
On Friday, he will fly to Daejeon to attend the sixth Asian Youth Day and meet with its participants.
His Aug. 14-18 Korean visit is seen as a signal that the Vatican’s focus is now shifting to one of the world’s most populous regions, where the Roman Catholic Church’s membership is growing strongly.
In January, Pope Francis will return to Asia to visit Sri Lanka and the Philippines, with a trip to Japan reportedly being considered.
By Lee Sun-young (firstname.lastname@example.org)