Saturday, 30 August 2014

#PopeFrancisInKorea: Pope Francis' Message

I had a feeling I wasn't meant to arrive early at the Beatification Mass celebrated by Pope Francis that Saturday morning in Gwanghwamun Square. Had I gotten there early, maybe, just maybe, I would have been able to get a photo of him as his pope mobile drove around the Square amidst the crowds of thousands waving, cheering and taking his photo as well. But with a photo of the Pope or not, attending the beatification that day was an experience of a lifetime. 

But on his last day in South Korea, on his last hour in the Korean Peninsula, I was able to snap an interesting photograph of Pope Francis, which, as I look at it now, made me realize the photo itself was his message.

During his visit in Korea, his message to the Korean people was to shun materialism. Well, having lived here in Korea for years, I discovered that materialism is part of the Korean culture. This may have been brought about by the country's fast economic advancement. Let's throw in greed, which of late, has been the cause of the most painful tragedy this decade. 

Pope Francis leads by example. And on this photograph, he rides a black compact car with a window open, waving to reach out for the last time to everyone who was on the street to see him pass.

It is really unthinkable for another visiting dignitary to ride such a small car. During state visits of other leaders, it would always be a long, black car, presumably bullet proof. And of course, with all windows closed at all times. 

Pope Francis, on the other hand, chose a smaller and cheaper car as if to remind everyone that a leader has to be modest and that everyone should be, too. 

He also chose to open his window, perhaps much to the dislike of his security. But he wanted to connect with everyone he encountered. And he really did connect. That day, the crowd waiting for him in Myeongdong were all smiling after seeing him wave back.

So there, Korea. The Pope has spoken to you about his message. 

Let's all remember it, embrace it and follow it.   

Friday, 29 August 2014

#PopeFrancisInKorea: "I'm Leaving On A Jet Plane..."

"I'm leaving on a jet plane...don't know when I'll be back again."

I was imagining Pope Francis humming that song when he was on his way to the Seoul Air Base, where his jet plane for Rome was waiting last Monday afternoon.

His visit to Korea was the most memorable of any foreign leader in recent times. It's not surprising why; Pope Francis is not your ordinary foreign leader. 

That Monday morning when he left, it was raining. I guess even the skies, like most Koreans, were sad to see him go. And even while he was celebrating his last Holy Mass at the Myeongdong Cathedral, people waiting outside the cathedral grounds were wearing raincoats and had their umbrellas open.  

They were there to say good-bye, too. They waited for him until he emerged from the Cathedral and rode his black compact car surrounded by his bodyguards.

Just as it was in all of the places and events he attended in Korea, security was tight. That morning, the police blocked off the main Myeongdong street leading to the Cathedral. And the only spot where people could have the last glimpse of His Holiness was at the footsteps of the Cathedral and on the coffee shops right in front. 

From the Cathedral grounds, his motorcade would pass through that highway that leads to the Namsan Tunnel 1. And that's where some people waited to see him. Well, some people, and then one more. Ha-ha-ha!

It was noon time and drizzling. The highway was lined with policemen wearing neon green raincoats. But unlike the attendance at the beatification mass a couple of days earlier, this time, there were just a handful of people along the street waiting for Pope Francis to pass. 

We immediately knew his motorcade was about to pass when, suddenly, our side of the street became eerily empty and a few seconds later, the police motorcycles with their lights blinking came into view. A few meters back, a lone black car followed and voila!  Two black compact cars came rolling down the wet highway. These compact cars had the Vatican flags on their hoods dancing in the wind and waving as if also to say good-bye.

Some people in the crowd called out his name and waved upon seeing the second compact car with its right window open and a hand sticking out waving to everyone standing on the street. As there was just a handful of us waiting for him, I realized Pope Francis waved at me, too! Although it was a wave of good-bye, it was a papal wave just the same!

Seconds later, his car and the rest of his motorcade were gone and everyone in the crowd was smiling, knowing that we have just seen the Pope!

I have now seen the last three popes. In 1995, I saw Pope John Paul II when he was in Manila. In 2010, I saw Pope Benedict XIV in Rome, and this day, Pope Francis! Although, he's also visiting the Philippines in January 2015, I don't think I'd be able to see him there.

So today, it's "Arrivederci, Pope Francis!" I hope I'd be able to see you again in Rome someday.
           (Pope Francis in his black compact car waving 
                        through the right side widow)                             

                        (Pope Francis waving from his car. 
Photo credit:

Sunday, 24 August 2014

#PopeFrancisInKorea: The Beatification Mass At Gwanghwamun Square

I was right about not asking for a ticket to Pope Francis' beatification of 124 Korean martyrs at Gwanghwamun Square on August 16, 2014.  I heard from friends that those with tickets had to be at the site as early as 5AM; I woke up at 7:30AM that day, and my reconnoitering of the area two nights before the event didn't help. At all! Ha-ha-ha!

But as soon as I awoke that Saturday morning, I checked the live news about the beatification. On TV, thousands were already entering the secured area and people were already posting and tweeting from their seats at the Gwanghwamun Square. Although I felt a little envious, I always reminded myself that I might not have been able to move around to take pictures if I was assigned a seat.
                   (An empty Saemun-an or 
                    Gwanghwamun street)
I left my Hannam-dong neighborhood in the Yongsan District about 9AM. By this time, Pope Francis was already at the Seosomun Green Park for a short visit. After that, he was off to the highlight of his visit to South Korea.

I thought of taking the subway, but I realized taking the bus would be more convenient for me since my route to Gwanghwamun Square was via the Seodaemun area. From Hannam-dong, the Blue Bus 421 took me to Sookmyung Women's University bus stop, where I transferred to Blue Bus 752. This is what I like about Seoul: its very efficient transport  system. So, even if the subway stations of Gwanghwamun, City Hall and Gyeongbuk Palace were closed that morning, anyone could still get to the site. From the Seodamun Police Headquarters bus stop, I simply walked for 15 minutes, and...Hallelujah! I was at Gwanghwamun and could already hear the choir singing!
             (A huge empty space where more                          Catholics could have occupied)
                    (Behind the barricades)

Pope Francis actually roamed around the beatification area to greet the crowd on his pope mobile before the ceremony. Even if I made it earlier, I wasn't sure if I would have been able to take a picture of him,  much less get a good glimpse of his holiness. There would be hundreds of people blocking my line of sight if they were standing or waving hankies, or raising their smartphones to take pictures.

               (People watching the Pope from 
                         a huge TV screen)

When I got to Gwanghamun, it was almost 10AM and Pope Francis was already a few minutes into his beatification ceremony. I think I was in the area for a good ten minutes when the thousands erupted in a singular cheering and celebration, clapping and waving their hankies in the air. That was the moment Pope Francis declared and beatified the 124 Korean martyrs!  Paul Yun-ji Chung and 123 Korean martyrs, who were persecuted and died during the Choseon Dynasty in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, had just been declared by the Catholic Church as 'blessed'. 
(As the Pope declared 'blessed' the 124 Korean martyrs...
         ...thousands and thousands stood up,                      cheered and clapped endlessly)

As I expected, the whole site was orderly with thousands of police and security making sure this part of Seoul was free from any nuisance that would ruin the event. Aside from the news of people fainting probably due to the summer heat, there wasn't much of a disturbance except for the one I witnessed by the entrance on the west side of the Square, where a Korean woman tried to barge in through the security, but was stopped. She lay sitting on the pavement wailing, but was appeased and carried to the next building.
               (A Korean woman wailing while 
                being watched by the police)

At the Seodaemun side where the road was closed, there was a big empty space that would have been available for people with no tickets to stand and watch. Had the organizers brought the barricade closer to the Square, a few hundreds could have watched the ceremony closer.

   (Do you recognize anyone from the crowd?)

And speaking of being closer, I made my way closest to the Gwanghwamun Square through a small open passage for Catholics with no tickets next to the barricades at Exit 7 of Gwanghwamun Station. Across the street from where I stood was Kyobo Building, to my left was the proud statue of Admiral Yi and right behind me was Godiva Chocolates! This chocolate shop actually had a cafe on the 2nd and 3rd floors, which they opened to their customers. But watching from the inside, even in air conditioned room, would not be the same as being on the ground where you can hear everything, especially the choir that sang during the Mass. Their singing was remarkably good with soprano and tenor voices soaring above everyone else's. They must have picked the best singers and rehearsed weeks (or even months!) before the ceremony. I wondered in which parish that choir regularly sang.
                                      (A sitting sea of humanity)
           (Majority of those who attended were 
             from the provinces and other cities)

As I expected to stand at the site for hours, I brought almond bread from Taegukbang, my new favorite bakeryand a bottled drink in case I got a little hungry. But I worried about those people sitting on the pavement under the sun. I wondered if they had food with them, too. Most of them came from the provinces and nearby cities, and perhaps, even travelled through the night. And when my tummy started to grumble right somewhere between the offertory and the Lord's Prayer, I had to give in and started munching a piece of my snack, reciting the line, "Give us this day our daily bread"
(I could see Admiral Yi from where I stood)
                                   (The crowd to my left)
                      (The crowd to my right)

The skies were cloudy, making the temperatures tolerable. Although everyone attending was not allowed to bring umbrellas, when it was time for the Holy Communion, I saw white umbrellas lining up and made their way to the center. These umbrellas actually were carried by assistants to cover a lay minister who distributed Communion to the thousands.
                           (The Pope on the screen in front)
              (And Godiva chocolates behind me!)

The attendees on our spot were lucky when two Catholic girls in front of me frantically waved to the lay minister to draw attention to the faithful (and sinners!) in our area, just like fans do when watching their favorite k-pop band on stage. But unlike k-pop bands who ignore the screaming fans and simply concentrate on their choreography and lip-syncing, the lay minister went straight to us! It turned out, most lay ministers gave communion even to those outside the barricade!  After receiving the Communion, I immediately realized that this was the highlight of my attending the beatification. Even though I didn't have a ticket and didn't have to wake up early, I was able to celebrate the beatification, hear the papal Mass and even receive the Holy Communion! I guess I was also 'blessed'! Perhaps Pope Francis could add one more non-Korean martyr to the list! Ha-ha-ha!
              (Emergency responders in orange and a               priest in a black cassock who reminded 
              me of the drama 'Thorn Birds')
     (The skies opened for some rays of light!)

And it was all over by noon time. The whole beatification was a success from many angles. From the campaign of the Korean Catholic church for the beatification of the 124 Korean martyrs, to the staging of the ceremony right in the middle of Seoul that required a lot of planning and preparation by the Church, the national police and the city government, to the selection and distribution of the thousands and thousands of tickets, and a lot of other things that weren't obvious on site and on the TV screens. 
                (The lay minister who came to our spot 
            and gave me the Holy Communion)

Let's count in some miracles like the weather. It wasn't that scorching with some grey clouds shielding the thousands from an otherwise intense sun. And it didn't rain that day; only the day after!
                     (Attendees flocking to the stall selling 
            souvenir t-shirts after the Mass)
           ("The Mass is ended. Go in peace.")
(The Mass is ended. Go and selfie.)
             (Even the police wanted a photo)

Two nights before the beatification, I actually went to Gwanghwamun Square to see for myself the preparations that were going on. Today, I considered myself lucky that I was one of the thousands who had the chance to attend it and even participate in it. I actually didn't need that ticket after all. I guess I just needed some wise transport planning, a bread and a drink, and a miracle or two.  

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

One week after the beatification, I went back to the Gwanghwamun Square. To write this blog, I visited the Godiva Chocolate shop, and got a seat next to their 3rd floor window. My spot during the beatification was right in front of this shop. At the cafe, I thought, with the Pope gone now, it was time to sin with Godiva's dark chocolate decadence! But having attended his beatification ceremony, I'm sure he'll forgive me. :-)
              (My sinful Godiva chocolate drink 
                  and my written confession) 

Saturday, 23 August 2014

#PopeFrancisInKorea : The Gwanghwamun Square Prepares For The Pope!

Weeks before the beatification ceremony at Gwanghwamun Square, my Catholic friends and I were already joking about where to camp out at the area. As everyone expected, thousands would be attending the ceremony and only those with tickets would be allowed inside the barricaded area.

                                       (Closed traffic)

I initially thought of registering for a ticket by making a few phone calls. But as the date got nearer, I realized, if the ceremony would start at 10AM and there would be thousands in attendance, the ticketholders should be at Gwanghwamun early in the morning. And to change a line of a break-up song, 'waking up (early!) is hard to do'! Ha-ha-ha!

I always knew I am not a morning person; I am a nocturnal creature. I thrive at night when the sun is gone and the moon is full! That's when I transform, not into a red-caped creature with fangs, but someone who just enjoys darker surroundings. Ha-ha-ha!
                               (The stand for giant TV screens)

Going back to waking up early.

Even if I got a ticket, I wasn't sure if I could get out of bed as early as 4AM and head to Gwanghwamun Square, pass through metal detectors and security, and sit on the assigned area until 12PM, the time the ceremony was expected to be over. With the summer temperatures not so friendly and with the thousands and thousands of other attendees, who wouldn't be allowed to bring umbrellas, I wasn't so sure if I'd be able to last that long, or worse, I wasn't sure if I'd be able to take good pictures!

So, no tickets for me. I'd be just fine.

And two nights before the beatification, after dinner treat at the Seoul Finance Center by an old Korean friend (Thanks, Jeeho!), I walked to the Gwanghwamun Square to check how the preparations were. That night, everything seemed normal with little signs of any changes in the area.

(A bbokki vendor unfazed with all the security around her)

But on the eve of the papal ceremony, Liberation Day in Korea, a holiday, the area was full of people. This time, the police outnumbered the curious! With police buses lining up the Sejong-ro from both sides, and with demonstrators marching towards the site and being watched by troops of young policemen around the perimeter, the atmosphere seemed scary, not holy. 
                     (Tourists and police at Cheonggye Stream)
                  (The police and their secret admirers)

I walked from the Gwanghwamun Square to the Cheonggye Stream. The families and tourists enjoying the cooler waters of the stream didn't seem fazed by the hundreds of policemen sharing the popular tourist attraction with them. With metal detectors already standing by, the police and organizers had started barricading the site from Gwanghwamun Square down to the Seoul Plaza next to the City Hall.
                                  ( Setting up the metal detectors)

I left the area; it's one less curious pedestrian  for them to worry about. Ha-ha-ha! The ceremony was one huge event and the organizers, the police and the city government had a long night ahead to set up the stage, metal detectors, chairs and barricades all over. 

And me? I'd just go home, get some sleep and wake up the next day, and return to Gwanghwamun Square with a camera and high spirits! 

"I'll be attending a beatification!"
                          (Yellow-green: my favorite shot of the night)