Pope Francis’ five-day visit to South Korea, which begins Thursday morning, will be the first time in a quarter-century that a pope has been on the divided Korean peninsula.
Francis plans to bring a message of peace and reconciliations to Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel, while encouraging Catholics in the region to spread their faith.
One of the highlights of Francis’ trip is the August 16 beatification of 124 Korean martyrs, killed for their faith by the anti-Western rulers of the Joseon Dynasty in the 18th and 19th centuries. Unlike most countries where missionary priests brought Catholicism and spread it, South Korea’s church is uniquely homegrown: Members of Korea’s noble classes discovered the faith in the 18th century reading books by the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci that they brought back from China.
Some historians say as late as 1953, at the end of the Korean War, there were as many as 300,000 North Korean Christians. “Now they’re practically all dead, many killed by the so-called death marches, from poverty or violent successive persecutions,” writes historian Vincenzo Faccioli Pintozzi.
Currently, there are no Vatican-recognized church structures or priests operating in North Korea. Francis is, however, expected to issue a message of peace and reconciliation for all Koreans during the Mass.