Updated: August 15, 2014 07:34 PM GMT
Pope Francis speaks at a ceremony to beatify 124 Korean martyrs in downtown Seoul on Saturday. (Photo by Steve Finch/ucanews.com)
Downtown Seoul came to a standstill on Saturday morning as Pope Francis celebrated Mass in Gwanghwamun plaza to beatify 124 Korean martyrs.
Hundreds of thousands of believers, most of them invited church groups from across South Korea, attended the open-air ceremony, held in hot, humid conditions in Gwanghwamun plaza – the city's main ceremonial thoroughfare.
The centrepiece of the pope's five day visit, the beatification mass was the subject of a massive security operation, with bridges, roads and subway stations closed, and police snipers posted on the roofs of overlooking office buildings, which had their windows sealed.
The pope first visited the Seosomun Martyrs’ Shrine to commemorate 27 of the martyrs who would be beatified, before heading to the plaza through streets packed with spectators – the largest papal crowd since John Paul II’s four million-strong Mass in Manila in 1995.
The most prominent among those to be beatified was an 18th century nobleman, Paul Yun Ji-Chung, who became Korea's first Catholic martyr when he was executed in 1791 after clashing with Confucian officials.
According to the Church, around 10,000 Koreans were martyred in the first 100 years after Catholicism was introduced to the peninsula in 1784.
"They knew the cost of discipleship ... and were willing to make great sacrifices," Francis said in his sermon after the brief beatification ceremony, which gives the martyrs the title "blessed" and marks their first step towards sainthood.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, unrepentant Catholics were generally paraded from Gwanghwamun southwest to Seosomun Gate where they were publicly executed.
Pope Francis began the day at a martyrs' shrine at Seosomun and then made the journey of the condemned in reverse to Gwanghwamun, riding in an open-topped vehicle and waving to the ecstatic crowds on either side.
Organisers had been concerned about the relatives of victims of April's Sewol ferry disaster, who have been camped out in Gwanghwamun for weeks to push their campaign for a full independent inquiry into the tragedy, which claimed 300 lives – most of them schoolchildren.
In the end, 600 family members were invited to attend the mass, effectively incorporating the protest into the event.
A father of one of the victims talked briefly with the pope while behind them protesters held signs reading: “We want the truth”.
Despite the pope’s vocal backing of the group, the government is yet to yield to an independent investigation four months after the ferry sank off South Korea’s southern coast, killing more than 300 people.
The pope’s hastily scheduled baptism of one of the fathers of the victims, originally scheduled for Saturday, was postponed until Sunday, thereby prolonging the uncomfortable publicity the papal visit has created for President Park Geun-hye’s government.
Although Seoul’s Archbishop Andrew Yeom Soo-jung made a brief reference to “justice and human rights” in his address welcoming Pope Francis, the mass itself rarely strayed from Paul Yun Ji-Chung and the 123 other martyrs who were fast-tacked to sainthood on Saturday.
South Korea is already home to 103 Catholic saints, the fourth-largest number in the world.
In front of Gwanghwamun, the main gate of the Joseon Dynasty which tortured and executed thousands of Korean Catholics, Pope Francis issued frequent reminders of the saints and the blessed as he again thanked the South Korean Church for its startling progress in recent years.
“Today is a day of great rejoicing for all Koreans,” said the pope in a beatification address beamed across Seoul on giant screens and live on televisions around the country.
“The heritage of Blessed Paul Yun Ji-chung and his companions – their integrity in the search for truth, their fidelity to the highest principles of the religion which they chose to embrace, and their testimony of charity and solidarity… these are part of the rich history of the Korean people,” he added.
Additional reporting by AFP.