SEOUL -- During his trip in South Korea today, Pope Francis stopped to pray at a monument for aborted children, a rare gesture as he has been known to avoid such culturally sensitive issues.
The people also beatified 124 Korean martyrs in an open-air Mass at the Gwanghwamun Gate, a symbolic place in the center of Seoul where those martyrs were executed in the 18th to 19th centuries for rejecting to renounce their Christian faith.
An estimated one million Catholics from around the country came to get a glimpse of the pope, according to local media. The number of Catholics has been growing at a dynamic rate in South Korea, doubling in the past 25 years to 5.4 million, or almost 11 percent of the population.
“Although the past popes have been extraordinary, Pope Francis really stands out,” said Kim Myung-Soo, 62, who arrived Friday to secure a good spot by the barricade where the pope was expected to pass by. “He truly cares for the poor and the weak.”
South 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 the county'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.
In his homily, Francis said the lessons of the 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."
As Francis declared the 124 blessed, the last step before sainthood in the Catholic Church, the masses applauded with loud joy and some in tears.
“My ancestor is one of them,” said a smiling Hong Young-Hee, 78, who held her rosary and wore a white veil underneath an orange paper sun visor with “Papa Francesco” written across it.
On the way to the simple altar in front of Gwanghwamun, Francis paraded slowly for almost two miles on an open car, waving to the crowd. He stopped by to get out of the car and bless the relatives of the victims from the ferry sinking that took more than 300 lives, mostly schoolchildren, in April. He also took a personal letter from one of them, tucked it in his white cassock and prayed for a short moment.
After the beatification mass, the pope traveled to Kkottongnae community, founded by a Catholic priest in the 1970s to care for the disabled, especially those with severe genetic disabilities.
Francis bowed his head in prayer before a monument dedicated to aborted children. He then caressed and hugged each of the residents of the community, young and old, and seemed genuinely pleased when one of the elderly residents with cerebral palsy, Kim Inja Cecilia, presented him with an origami crane she folded with her feet.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.