Pope in Korea: 'Put Christ first!'

Up to a million Koreans attended the Beatification Mass of 124 martyrs in Seoul on Saturday. As Pope Francis made his way towards Gwanghwamun Plaza, where a large altar had been constructed, Koreans in their thousands cheered and waved, straining to record the event on their mobile devices. The papal vehicle stopped occasionally, allowing the Pope, smiling, to kiss the foreheads of small children who were held up to him.

Pope Francis delivered his homily in Italian, pausing every minute or two for the translation in Korean. “So often, we today can find our faith challenged by the world, and in countless ways, we are asked to compromise our faith, to water down the radical demands of the Gospel and to conform to the spirit of this age,” he said.  “Yet the martyrs call out to us to put Christ first and to see all else in this world in relation to him and his eternal kingdom. They challenge us to think about what, if anything, we ourselves would be willing to die for,” he said.

The beatification ceremony itself lasted for two-and-a-half-hour. It was described as both solemn and joyful. In his homily, Pope Francis said that the legacy of the Korean martyrs should inspire us to work in harmony “for a more just, free and reconciled society”. 

Among the congregation were 400 family members of the Sewol ferry tragedy who had been invited as special guests. 100 bishops attended the Mass from Korea and neighbouring countries and some 170,000 designated parishioners were also given seats on the plaza.


Pope Francis’ visit to Korea was not without its unexpected events. The Pope chose to take the high speed train between Seoul and Daejeon rather than the scheduled helicopter, meeting several other travellers in adjoining carriages. He also made an unofficial visit to the residence of the Jesuit community at Sogang University, to spend “ordinary community evening recreation time relaxing with his fellow Jesuits.” The Pope urged them to be “Jesuits who give consolation to people” and concluded by asking them to “pray for me often".

Writing in his blog Schola Affectus, Fr Tim Byron SJ at the University Chaplaincy in Manchester says that the origins of the Catholic Church in Korea are fascinating.  “The Korean Catholic Church grew for the first 100 years without any priests or visits from missionaries,” he notes. “Christianity was brought to Korea by a Korean diplomat who had encountered the books of [Italian Jesuit] Matteo Ricci in the court in Beijing ...  His appreciation of Chinese culture and the people’s admiration of him as a learned scholar gave Ricci great inroads.  He was the first to translate Kong Fuzi’s teachings into Latin – thus coining the name Confucius – Ricci became a bridge between the east and the west.”

Fr Byron goes on to point out that it was probably Ricci’s book ‘The true meaning of the Lord of Heaven’ which argues that Confucianism and Christianity are remarkably similar in key ways that had the greatest influence. “It was this book that brought Christianity to Korea in 1603, where it was to grow, without access to the sacraments, without any active priestly ministry,” he writes.