Catholic Church

800,000 turn out for Pope Francis' open-air mass in Seoul

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 August, 2014, 7:21pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 August, 2014, 10:44am

Pope Francis beatified 124 Korean martyrs yesterday, telling hundreds of thousands of people who turned out for his open-air mass that their ancestors' willingness to die rather than renounce their faith two centuries ago was a model for Asian missionaries today.

He also issued a clear warning to Catholic clergy, saying those who professed poverty while living rich material lives were hypocrites who hurt the image and mission of the church.

Watch: Pope Francis says a mass for Korean martyrs in Seoul

The streets leading up to Seoul's Gwanghwamun Gate were packed with Koreans honouring the lay Catholics who founded the church in Korea in the 18th century. The church is unique in that it was founded not by foreign missionaries, but by members of Korea's own noble classes who learned of Christianity by reading books about it.

These early Catholics were killed in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Joseon dynasty, which tried to shut the Korean peninsula off from Western influence.

The Vatican said about 800,000 people turned out in Seoul. About 10 per cent of South Korea's 50 million people are Catholics.

The mass kicked off a busy day for the pope as he passed the halfway mark of his five-day visit to South Korea. In the afternoon, he travelled to a religious community that cares for severely disabled people. He praised clergy who dedicate their lives to the needy and urged them to stay on the right path.

"The hypocrisy of those consecrated men and women who profess vows of poverty, yet live like the rich, wounds the souls of the faithful and harms the church," he said.

The pope has been urging Catholic officials to live simpler lives, and renounced the papal apartments in the Vatican for quarters in a church guest house.

The mass in Seoul gave the pontiff an opportunity to stress how the lessons of Korea's early martyrs were relevant today for South Korea's church, which is small but growing and is seen as a model for the rest of the world.

A collective cheer erupted when the pope declared the 124 "blessed" - the first step towards possible sainthood.

"They were willing to make great sacrifices and let themselves be stripped of whatever kept them from Christ - possessions and land, prestige and honour - for they knew that Christ alone was their true treasure," he said. "They challenge us to think about what, if anything, we ourselves would be willing to die for."

Thousands of people were neatly packed into fenced-in sections leading away from the altar, which was set up in front of Gwanghwamun, the south gate to Gyeongbokgung Palace.

Police in green vests stood guard along the barricades and volunteers handed out water to guard against the warm, humid temperatures.

"I'm so thankful that the pope visited South Korea," said 75-year-old Yu Pil-sang, a Catholic who was trying to get a glimpse of the pontiff just outside the police barricades. "But I'm so sorry that all the ways to see the pope are blocked. I came to hear at least his voice."

Associated Press, Reuters