South Koreans shout slogans during a rally demanding the adoption of a special law for the sunken ferry Sewol in Seoul, South Korea, Friday. Pic: AP.

DAEJEON, South Korea – Pope Francis said his first Mass in South Korea Friday in front of tens of thousands of people.

Marking his first public appearance before Korean Catholics since his arrival Thursday, the pope celebrated Mass on the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, one of the most important religious holidays for the faith.

Held at Daejeon World Cup Stadium, which seats approximately 50,000 people, the venue was filled to capacity at dawn, more than four hours prior to the Pope’s arrival. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to be here. I am truly inspired by his visit,” said Park In-soo, who was lucky enough to get a seat.

Reowned South Korean pop singer In Sooni and Grammy-winning soprano Sumi Jo kept the crowd entertained before the start of the Mass. Other celebrities, including actor Lee Philip, came to see the Pope, patiently observing from seats on the second-floor.

When the Pope arrived, the stadium broke out into the chant they had rehearsed all morning, “Viva Papa! Viva Papa!”

The Pope greeted members of the crowd as he circled the stadium. One of those was Kim Joon-hun, whose two-year-old son was blessed by the Pope. “When I was [my son’s] age, my parents brought me to see Pope John Paul II,” said an emotional Kim. “Being so young, I don’t remember meeting him, but it is incredible that I am here with my son meeting Pope Francis. My whole family is here. It is a special moment.”

Before the start of Mass Pope Francis met with survivors and families of the victims’ of the Sewol ferry disaster, which claimed more than than 300 lives in March, most of whom were high school students. Kim Byung-gwan, a father of one of the victims, told reporters that the parents gave letters to the Pope requesting assistance in passing the special Sewol law, which aims to find the cause of the ferry sinking.

The Pope also dedicated part of his Angelus Message to the Sewol victims, asking for peace for the dead and consolation for those who mourn while calling for solidarity for the common good in light of this national disaster.

In his homily, Pope Francis warned of the “despair” that affects outwardly affluent societies “like cancer”.

South Korea is a unique example of a country where Catholicism has grown alongside economic prosperity. Since the 1980s, the Catholic Church has grown four-fold, with more than 5 million followers of the faith.

One of the Pope’s reasons for visiting South Korea includes the reconciliation of the division on the Korean Peninsula. August 15 also marks Korean Liberation Day, celebrating Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II. According to North Korean state media, Pyongyang fired five missiles into the sea in remembrance of this day. North Korean citizens were also invited to attend the Mass for Peace and Reconciliation set for Monday next week, but the offer was turned down.

Pope Francis’ trip to South Korea is the first papal visit since Pope John Paul II in 1989. Francis will attend the Asia Youth Rally and the beatifications of 124 Korean Martyrs during the remainder of his visit.