The streets leading up to Seoul's iconic Gwanghwamun Gate were packed with Koreans honoring the lay Catholics who founded the church here in the 18th century. Korea's church is unique in that it was founded not by foreign missionary priests — as occurred in most of the world — 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.
Police in Seoul declined to give an estimate of the crowd size, but the Vatican said about 800,000 people had turned out. The number was significant given that Catholics represent only about 10 percent of South Korea's 50 million people.
The Mass kicked off a busy day for Francis as he passed the halfway mark of his five-day South Korea visit. In the afternoon, he traveled to a religious community that cares for severely disabled Koreans and prayed briefly at a monument to aborted babies — a strong albeit silent gesture from a pope who prefers to stress other aspects of church teaching rather than emphasize hot-button "culture war" issues like abortion.
The Mass in Seoul, though, was one of the highlights of his trip, providing Francis with an opportunity to stress how the lessons of Korea's early martyrs were relevant today for Korea's church, which is small but growing and is seen as a model for the rest of the world.
"They were willing to make great sacrifices and let themselves be stripped of whatever kept them from Christ — possessions and land, prestige and honor — 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."
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