Pope Francis has flown to South Korea to begin a five-day Asian tour, his first to the region.
It is the first papal visit to the region, the last to anywhere in the far east being the visit to the Philippines by Pope John Paul II in 1995.
It is Francis’s third foreign trip, after Brazil and the Holy Land.
The official reason for the visit is Seoul’s hosting of the Sixth Asian Youth Day, which the Pope is addressing, but he will also be honouring local martyrs, discussing the Catholic church’s regional growth, and reconciliation between the two Koreas.
South Korea is ten percent Catholic. However the minority is remarkably dynamic, and the congregation has grown by 30% in the the last decade.
Francis is scheduled to meet many young Asian Catholics on the trip, along with the poorest and the sick, and will reinforce calls for North and South Korea to resolve their differences.
“As our country has gone through many difficulties, I hope Pope Francis’s visit to South Korea will help us resolve the problems through his grace, especially conflicts between South and North Korea,” says Choo Hye-Ok, a South Korean catholic.
Seoul officials expect the capital to see a million-strong mass, held with the theme “peace and reconciliation” on the Korean peninsular, on August 18. The religious ceremony will be the final event of the trip.
Also on the agenda is the beatification of 124 martyrs, and a meeting with some of the “comfort women” taken prisoner and used by the Japanese during WWII.
Former comfort women met in Seoul ahead of Francis’s arrival.
“The meeting with the Pope will be a consolation and help the former comfort women heal. Also it will pressure the Japanese government and international society. I hope the meeting will give momentum to resolve the comfort women problem,” said the director of the Korean Council for Women Draftted for Sexual Slavery by Japan, Yoon Mee-Hyang.
Some have been hoping for a spectacular papal gesture, like a visit to the frontier with North Korea; a gesture similar to his visiting the Israeli separation wall in Bethlehem in May. But his office says he has no such plan.
Pope Francis has placed reconciliation, peace, and the easing of geopolitical tensions and territorial conflicts without violence at the heart of Vatican foreign policy.
Last Sunday at his weekly Angelus prayer he warned the return to violence in Gaza would only “worsen” relations between Israelis and Palestinians. He added he was “horrified” by the situation in Iraq before referring to his voyage to South Korea, and calling on the faithful for their prayers.