Seoul (AsiaNews) - More than 1,000 volunteers and 300 employees are working to prepare in every detail Pope Francis' visit to Korea between 14 to 18 August. He is coming to Daejeon to meet young people for Asian Youth Day, and to Seoul to beatify 124 Korean Martyrs.
Mgr Basil Cho Kyu Man, 59, auxiliary bishop of Seoul heads the organisation. He welcomed us into his office, which is full of papers, documents, secretaries. He told us that among Koreans, expectations are high.
In every parish banners have been raised and prayers are being recited that this visit may bear fruit. Catholics are not alone. Most people, most Koreans are interested and want to attend.
"Pope Francis is a very famous personality," he said. "All Koreans know his way of doing and speaking, what he does for the poor, the sick. In recent months many of the pope's books have been translated In Korea".
The area chosen for the beatification Mass on 16 August is Gwanghwamun Square, near the ancient imperial palace, one of the most beautiful places in the capital.
Gwanghwamun ("the gates of light") Square, which opens into a wide 10-lane road, is the symbol of Korean identity, embellished by the statues of Admiral Yi Sun-shin, who in the late 16th century defeated the Japanese fleet several times, and that of King Sejong the Great, a reformer of the fifteenth century.
Bishop Cho said that there were doubts about the location, whether a larger venue near the river was better. Eventually, "we decided for Gwanghwamun because it is in the centre, in the ancient city. The martyrs lived in that place and some were martyred and beheaded in the same place."
"Right near the place where the pope's altar will be placed, there is a church that commemorates the martyrdom of the blessed. In ancient times, there was also the police station, where the martyrs were likely locked up. The place is also the heart of the city, an expression of the history of Korea, inside the city, in the central business district, which is where we need to evangelise."
"The cordoned off area can contain only 200,000 people," he explained. "Many more can stand outside the police perimeter but we do not know how many." However, Bishop Cho does not expect the same crowds as in 1984, when John Paul II came. "Back then, his visit drew a million people. Some expect that in mid-August it will be too hot, too tiring and too expensive to come to Seoul."
The other issue will be security. "The government," Mgr Cho said, "is very nervous." In fact, "After Pope Francis publicly excommunicated the mafia in Italy, the government became concerned that there might be some repercussions. Behind the scene there is talk that the Koreans want tight security and a bullet-proof car, whilst the Vatican does not want obstacles preventing the pope from meeting people."
The meetings in Daejeon will also be important as well. "Young people from 23 countries will be present. So far, 6,000 people have registered: 4,000 Koreans and 2,000 from abroad. But I think many more will come without being registered; young people from the Philippines, Japan, Hong Kong, Mongolia, and perhaps even China. We have sent letters of invitation to China, and we know that young Chinese are coming, but we do not know how many they will be."
"So far we know that the largest group will come from the Philippines, a neighbouring country, with many Catholics. Then we have the Vietnamese and then those from Hong Kong."
"The meeting will have a very vocational character with 2,000 young people who are preparing to enter the seminary; plus more than 500 seminarians."
"On 15 August, 20 representatives from each country will go to lunch with the pope. In the afternoon they will all go to Solmoe, near the martyrs' shrine, to celebrate the Day."
"Later some sort of festival of cultures will be held, in which each group will prepare a small representation. Two young people will introduce the event, telling the pope their situation, then the pope will deliver his speech."
The last question for Mgr Basil was about his hopes for Pope Francis' visit. Walking the streets of Seoul one sees a developed country, an affluent society, where God does not seem to be important and where practical atheism is growing.
"We hope," he told me, "that seeing the Pope will lead to a new flowering of religiosity and discovery of the Catholic faith. When John Paul II came (in 1984 and 1989), there was a sharp increase in conversions to Catholicism. This pope's visit will be a missionary visit. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis said that in the Church we are all missionaries. He will push everyone, priests and laity towards the mission. Precisely for this reason, some Protestant missionaries are concerned a little about his visit, fearing his 'competition'."