SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — They came from across South Korea to see Pope Francis or, if the crowds were too big to get close enough, to hear his voice emanate from speakers set up around a stage during a Mass to beatify 124 martyrs.
The massive crowd – an estimated 800,000 – packed a long, broad avenue that runs perpendicular to the iconic Gwanghwamun Gate, spilling into side streets and stretching for blocks away from the stage. They fanned themselves in the humid, hazy weather. There was high emotion, including vows to make life changes, pride that South Korea was receiving such global attention, frustration at not seeing Francis’ face and surprise at his humble manner. Here are some of their voices:
“I’m so thankful that the pope visited South Korea,” said Yu Pil-sang, 75, a Catholic who stood just outside a police barricade that kept her from entering the main plaza. “But I’m so sorry that all the ways to see the pope are blocked. I came to hear at least his voice.”
“The pope emphasizes love, and I have to see him. I feel so bad,” Yu said, pointing out police officers who were keeping those without passes out of the main viewing area.
“It was memorable to see him riding in a small car, how he brought himself to a lower place and how he tried to listen to people,” said Eom Yae-sung, 49, a Protestant. “I don’t know much about Catholics and South Korea’s Catholic history, but it seems that the pope is making sure to reach out equally to everyone.”
Eom said the pope had inspired her to make changes in her life.
“I plan to do volunteering and a lot of sharing so that when I look back at my life 10 years from now, I will think that the pope’s visit motivated me to change,” Eom said. “As I saw the pope, I thought I should not live my life the way I’m living it now. I used to have a lot of plans, but I’ve been terrible at putting them into practice.”
“Regardless of one’s religion, the pope is a great figure to all Koreans,” said Kwon Hyuk-mo, 60, a Protestant. “He approaches people in lower places with love. … He says we should accept other religions and not stubbornly insist on one’s own religion.”
He said he wished young South Koreans would take the pope’s message of addressing inequality to heart.
“South Korea is on its way to becoming an advanced country, and we have enjoyed a lot of material benefits in a short time. But in my generation, we did not deal well with the gap between the rich and the poor. Through his visit, I hope the future generations will deal with it better.”
“Usually I resist messages about removing the gap between the rich and the poor because I’m from an older generation,” said Lee Min-ha, 44, a Catholic who came to see the pope with her middle school daughter. “In South Korea right now, money controls everything. But he says people with the means should share with the poor. It made me think that maybe we have been too selfish and have thought only of ourselves.
“He asked us to share, and I’ve come to think that it’s necessary. The divide between the haves and the have-nots is so deep in South Korea now. (His visit) is a chance to take preventative measures against that and to bring down the wall for South Korea.”
“A lot of people are suffering these days,” said Sohn Kwan-young, 31, an electronics company worker. “But we saw him humbling himself with people who are suffering, and I think he is providing a huge consolation to the South Korean public.”
Sohn was particularly struck by the pope’s treatment of the relatives of some of the 304 people killed when a South Korean ferry sank in April. “I was greatly moved when I saw him warmly embracing the families of the Sewol ferry victims who were ignored by South Korea’s government.”
He said other religious leaders in South Korea should learn from the pope, especially from his emphasis on caring for the poor and underprivileged.
“Life is busy, but I’ve come to think that I should take better care of socially underprivileged people and my neighbors,” Sohn said.
“I came to see even his face,” said Bae Doa, 17, a high school student and a Protestant. “He seems very humble. He doesn’t ride in a very good car and he takes a train instead of a helicopter. From such a high place, he discarded it all to come down to a low place. It really looks good.”
“Even though I’m not a Catholic, I feel proud that the pope visited South Korea,” said Kim Eung-joo, 15, a high school student who came with two friends. “It does not happen often in other countries. South Korea is amazing.”