President Park Geun-hye and Pope Francis inspect the honor guard at the official welcoming ceremony at Cheong Wa Dae on Thursday. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
From dawn until dusk, Pope Francis skipped as much ceremonial fanfare as possible on his first day in Seoul, underscoring his reputation as the people’s pope.
Soft summer winds swept across the runway of Seoul Air Base on Thursday as the papal plane touched down in South Korea’s capital after an 11-hour flight from Rome.
Onlookers patiently waited for the Alitalia plane to taxi toward the welcoming party, with a South Korean military honor guard forming up beside the red carpet.
The Army’s ceremonial cannons roared a 21-gun salute to the Roman Catholic Church’s top priest as he silently shook hands with South Korean government officials and invited guests, including descendants of the 124 martyrs the pope will beatify on Saturday.
He hugged the youngest members of the reception group, children aged 12 and 8, whispering words of thanks to the two for their kindness.
Pope Francis then hopped into a black Kia Soul at the air base. Some journalists watching the scene giggled at the gesture, saying the car seemed “petite.” The pope is famous for foregoing luxury bullet-proof automobiles in order to get closer to the people on the street.
The pontiff moved to the Vatican Embassy in Seoul before holding brief talks with President Park Geun-hye at Cheong Wa Dae, Seoul’s presidential office, later in the day.
He did not eat with the president though, despite diplomatic protocol.
“Vatican officials have requested understanding from the South Korean government authorities about the gesture,” said Hur Young-yup, the spokesman for the preparatory committee. “The pope will not dine until probably late tonight.”
The pope will likely eat “regular food,” just like any other person, Hur added.
Pope Francis voiced words of support for the youth during his first 12 hours in Korea.
“A wise and great people do not only cherish their ancestral traditions; they also treasure their young,” the pontiff said in his rough Spanish accent at a press briefing at Cheong Wa Dae.
The pope’s Twitter account had additional support.
“May God bless Korea ― and in a special way, the elderly and the young people,” a post read, soon after the pontiff’s arrival in Seoul.
“Saint John Paul II, pray for us and especially for our youth,” a second message read, in reference to the late Pope John Paul II who visited Korea in 1984 and 1989.
Pope Francis will spend Friday, the second day of his five-day apostolic tour of Korea, in Daejeon, to celebrate Mass and attend a gathering of young Catholics from Asian countries.
On the Catholic calendar, Aug. 15 is Assumption Day, a major feast day to mark the death of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, and her bodily assumption into Heaven.
The pope, flying some 160 kilometers from Seoul by helicopter, will celebrate a Mass for the occasion at the Daejeon World Cup Stadium. It will start at 10:30 a.m. and is expected to draw tens of thousands of people.
Soprano Sumi Jo and veteran pop singer Insooni, both devout Catholics, will sing before the service.
Bereaved family members of the victims of the Sewol ferry disaster were invited to the event. The pope is scheduled to meet them in person shortly after the Mass and is expected to offer words of consolation.
The family members are expected to ask for the pope’s public support on the legislation of a controversial bill, which aims to create an inquiry panel to determine the causes of the ferry’s sinking on April 16. The disaster left 294 dead and another 10 missing.
At 1:30 p.m., the pope will lunch with 20 young Asian leaders from 17 countries at the Daejeon Catholic University. He will then head for a Catholic holy place, Solmoe, in Dangjin, South Chungcheong Province, where he will meet and address participants in the 6th Asian Youth Day.
The Solmoe Holy Ground is the birthplace of Korea’s first priest Kim Tae-gon.
The 6th Asian Youth Day is the primary reason behind the 77-year-old Argentine pontiff’s decision to travel to Korea, his first outing to Asia since becoming pope in March last year. About 2,000 young believers from across Asia are gathered for this year’s festival. No pope has attended the event before.
The pontiff will then return to the Apostolic Nunciature in Seoul, his home during the Korean trip, by helicopter.
He returns to Rome next Monday.
By Lee Sun-young and Jeong Hunny