It’s official. The volo papale, or papal airplane, will take off from Rome’s Fiumicino Airport in mid-August. This time it will be headed for the heart of Asia. Pope Francis will visit Daejeon, South Korea from August 14 to 18. Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican Press Office, made the announcement in a statement issued March 10. The official comunicato reads:
Welcoming the invitation from the President of the Republic and the Korean bishops, His Holiness Francis will make an Apostolic Trip to the Republic of Korea from 14 to 18 August 2014, on the occasion of the Sixth Asian Youth Day, to be held in the diocese of Daejeon.
The trip will mark the first papal visit to the Korean peninsula in more than two decades. Pope John Paul II visited there on two separate occasions: in the spring of 1984 and again in the autumn of 1989. For his part, Pope Benedict XVI did not elect to visit South Korea during almost a decade as pope.
Both of Pope John Paul II’s visits attracted record numbers of pilgrims. Traveling to Seoul in 1989 for the International Eucharistic Congress, he led one of the largest outdoor gatherings on the Asian continent: some one million Catholics attended the congress’ closing liturgical celebration on October 8, 1989. However, that record was broken in 1995 when he visited Manila, Philippines on the occasion of the Tenth International World Youth Day. More than five million individuals attended that event—the largest outdoor gathering in human history.
A vibrant Church
Like Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis could attract record-setting numbers of pilgrims. After all, the Catholic Church is alive and well in South Korea. In fact, over the last decade, Catholicism has witnessed an incredible growth spurt there. Church enrollment has swelled some 70 percent. Now, more than five million South Koreans—about 11 percent of the population—are members of the Roman Catholic Church. That number continues to increase.