SEOUL, South Korea – Pope Francis on Thursday begins the first papal visit to South Korea in a quarter century, with plans to beatify 124 Korean martyrs and encourage a vibrant and growing local church seen as a model for the future of Catholicism.
Highlights of the pope's five days in South Korea also include his participation in a Catholic festival for young believers from around Asia and a Mass for peace and reconciliation on the war-divided Korean Peninsula. A ceremony Saturday to beatify Korean martyrs who perished for their faith from 1791 to 1888 could draw about 1 million people, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported.
Although the pope plans to reach out to South Korea's archrival, North Korea, during the visit, authorities in the North declined an invitation by the Seoul archdiocese to send a delegation to attend a Mass, the Vatican said.
A few women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II will attend a Mass, although no private audience is expected, the Vatican said. The pope is also expected to meet with some families of the more than 300 people killed when a South Korean ferry sank in April. The government's response to the disaster, which killed mostly high school students, has angered many South Koreans.
"A lot of bad things keep happening in our country right now, and people are going through tough times. So I hope this event can encourage people and bring more positive things to our country," said Ryun Sun-hee, a 19-year-old college student.
It's the first papal visit since Pope John Paul II traveled to South Korea in 1989. In January, Francis plans to visit Sri Lanka and the Philippines.
South Korea's church, which has been growing steadily over the last half century, is seen as a model for the future. Local church officials hope for a continuing increase in believers in a country that once welcomed missionaries to help spread the faith but now sends its own priests and nuns abroad to evangelize in other countries.
There was high anticipation in South Korea ahead of the visit.
The sound of construction could be heard at places in central Seoul that the pope will visit. Traffic has been more congested and security has been tighter than usual in those areas.
Banners and posters welcoming the pope decorated streets and subway stations. Yonhap reported an increase in sales of rosaries and other Catholic goods, and special displays of books on the pope and Catholicism have sprung up in book stores.