As Pope Francis beatified 124 martyrs today, he exhorted Koreans to follow the martyrs’ example and resist the urge to “water down the radical demands of the Gospel and to conform to the spirit of this age.”
The Pope celebrated the Mass of beatification before a crowd of 800,000 at a square in downtown Seoul.
In his homily, which he gave in Italian, with pauses for translation to Korean, he reflected on the history of Catholicism in Korea. Today the country is about 10% Catholic.
“In God’s mysterious providence,” he said, “the Christian faith was not brought to the shores of Korea through missionaries; rather, it entered through the hearts and minds of the Korean people themselves. It was prompted by intellectual curiosity, the search for religious truth. Through an initial encounter with the Gospel, the first Korean Christians opened their minds to Jesus. They wanted to know more about this Christ who suffered, died, and rose from the dead. Learning about Jesus soon led to an encounter with the Lord, the first baptisms, the yearning for a full sacramental and ecclesial life, and the beginnings of missionary outreach. It also bore fruit in communities inspired by the early Church, in which the believers were truly one in mind and heart, regardless of traditional social differences, and held all things in common.”
It was this fervor that led to the 18th and 19th century martyrdoms that Francis recognized today.
He observed how the unique history of the Korean people’s faith shows the importance of the laity. And he drew a message from the Gospel “important … for all of us”:
“Jesus asks the Father to consecrate us in truth, and to protect us from the world.
“First of all, it is significant that, while Jesus asks the Father to consecrate and protect us, he does not ask him to take us out of the world. We know that he sends his disciples forth to be a leaven of holiness and truth in the world: the salt of the earth, the light of the world. In this, the martyrs show us the way.”
The Holy Father noted how very early in their history, the first Korean Christians “had to choose between following Jesus or the world.”
They “knew the cost of discipleship,” he said, and for many, “this meant persecution, and later flight to the mountains, where they formed Catholic villages. 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.”
The Pontiff remarked that today, too, we face a temptation similar to that resisted by the martyrs: “We today can find our faith challenged by the world, and in countless ways we are asked to compromise our faith, to water down the radical demands of the Gospel and to conform to the spirit of this age. Yet the martyrs call out to us to put Christ first and to see all else in this world in relation to him and his eternal Kingdom. They challenge us to think about what, if anything, we ourselves would be willing to die for.”
Heeding the poor
Turning to a theme at the heart of his pontificate, he added, “The example of the martyrs also teaches us the importance of charity in the life of faith. It was the purity of their witness to Christ, expressed in an acceptance of the equal dignity of all the baptized, which led them to a form of fraternal life that challenged the rigid social structures of their day. It was their refusal to separate the twin commandment of love of God and love of neighbor which impelled them to such great solicitude for the needs of the brethren. Their example has much to say to us who live in societies where, alongside immense wealth, dire poverty is silently growing; where the cry of the poor is seldom heeded; and where Christ continues to call out to us, asking us to love and serve him by tending to our brothers and sisters in need.”
As well, the Pope had a word for those suffering persecution for their faith today. In one of his last acts before leaving Rome for Korea, the Holy Father send a personal envoy to the suffering Christians and other minorities in Iraq.
“If we follow the lead of the martyrs and take the Lord at his word, then we will understand the sublime freedom and joy with which they went to their death,” he said. “We will also see today’s celebration as embracing the countless anonymous martyrs, in this country and throughout the world, who, especially in the last century, gave their lives for Christ or suffered grave persecution for his name.”
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