SOLMOE, SOUTH KOREA – Pope Francis usually refuses to speak anything other than Italian or his native Spanish in public, apparently uncomfortable with his abilities even when reading from a prepared text.
But he has gamely ventured into uncharted linguistic territory during his South Korea visit, delivering a handful of speeches in English and even speaking off the cuff Friday in English to thousands of young Asian faithful.
The crowd seemed to appreciate the gesture.
“A beloved friend of mine told me you must never speak to young people with paper,” Francis said in his Spanish-accented English as he held up his prepared remarks. “You must speak, address to young people spontaneously, by the heart.”
The crowd cheered him on, and he continued. “But I have a great difficulty. I have poor English.”
“Nooooo!” the kids cried. “Yes! Yes!” he argued. “If you desire, I can to say other things spontaneously. Are you tired?” he asked.
“Nooooo!” the kids shouted. “May I go on?” he asked. “Yesssss!” they shouted.
But by then, Francis had exhausted his English. “Yes. But I do it in Italian.”
Perhaps Francis is just getting more comfortable as his year-plus papacy wears on. Just last week he dusted off his German — used when he was working on a dissertation in Germany in the late 1980s — when he met with 50,000 German-speaking altar servers in St. Peter’s Square.
Hundreds of thousands of people turned out later Saturday for one of the highlights of Francis’ trip to South Korea, the beatification of 124 Koreans killed for their faith over two centuries ago.
The streets leading up to Seoul’s iconic Gwanghwamun Gate were packed with Koreans honoring the ordinary lay Catholics who founded the church here in the 18th century. Korea’s church is unique in that it was founded not by missionaries or priests who brought the faith to the peninsula and converted people but by members of Korea’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.
A collective cheer erupted from the masses when Francis declared the 124 “blessed” — the first step toward possible sainthood.