Pope Francis will be embarking on his first ever trip to Asia this week, at the Republic of Korea from Aug 14-18. Included in his 5-day visit to the country are four masses, including one for the beatification of 124 Korean Catholic martyrs and another for a gathering of Catholic youths in Asia, as well as a visit to the 'Cemetery for Aborted Children.'
The leader of the 1.2-billion strong Roman Catholic church is likewise expected to meet and console the families of the victims of April Sewol ferry disaster, which killed 293 passengers, majority of which were young people.
Pope Francis is expected to send signals of unity and harmony to both leaders of the north and south of Korea. Observers, however, believed the pontiff won't be staging a surprise invitation to both leaders to join him for another peace prayer in the Vatican gardens, similar to what he did in May with the leaders of warring Middle East nations Israel and Palestine.
Still, in the words of Fr Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, last week, "The pope can always surprise us."
The South Korean committee handling the preparations of Pope Francis' visit said 90 global bishops will accompany the pontiff. "Some 90 bishops, including 30 in the pope's entourage and 60 from other Asian countries, will attend various events during the pope's visit to South Korea," the committee told reporters.
As early last year after his visit to Brazil, Pope Francis had signified that he wanted to go and visit Asia. His predecessor, Benedict XVI, never visited the region during his eight-year pontificate.
There are only 130 million Asian Catholics around the world, representing a measly 11 per cent of total Catholics. However, Asia's Catholic church is growing unexpectedly faster than any place else except Africa, according to Huff Post. Half the population of Asia is under 25.
"Their sense of Catholicism is unburdened by the weight of things about the church that preoccupy European and North American Catholics and can be a distraction from following Jesus in the very new circumstances of the 21st century," Rev Michael Kelly, a Jesuit and executive director of the Union of Catholic Asian News, or UCANews, an independent wire service based in Hong Kong, said.
"In the Western model, we look at ourselves as under the aegis of Rome, in a pyramid structure," Huff Post quoted Tom Fox, publisher of National Catholic Reporter and author of 'Pentecost in Asia: A New Way of Being Church.'
"The starting point of the Asian church has always been the local church."
Meantime, the Bank of Korea has announced it will be releasing a set of two commemorative coins to celebrate the upcoming visit of Pope Francis. The designs of the two coin incorporated both Catholic symbols of peace and Korea's traditional symbols.
The coins, totaling 81,000 pieces in all, will be available for sale in Korea via reservations at Woori and Nonghyup commercial banks from Aug 11. The remaining number of 9,000 coins - 4,500 pieces each for the brass and silver coins will be sold to overseas collectors, according to the central bank.
See the coin designs here.
On the start of 2015, Pope Francis will visit Sri Lanka and the Philippines, the Asian region's largest Catholic country.