Korean ship tragedy could shape Francis visit

by Thomas C. Fox

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We enter the Easter Triduum shaken to the bone by news that approximately 280 people -- mostly teenagers from a single high school -- are missing at sea after a ship carrying 475 people capsized off the coast of South Korea. Eighteen were confirmed dead by Thursday afternoon, with dozens more injured. Rescuers were frantically fighting bad weather and frigid waters as they searched for possible survivors in a small air trap within the five-story ship.

The ship carried a class of 16- and 17-year-olds from Danwon High School in Ansan, a city near Seoul. The class was headed to Jeju, an island off the coast of southern Korea, for a four-day vacation.

It is not yet clear what caused the ship to list, then flip over. Reports suggest the ship might have hit an underwater obstacle or freight inside broke loose and shifted weight.   

What is clear is that the death toll will be tortuously high.

It is equally clear this tragedy will cast a dark shadow over Pope Francis’ first Asian trip -- to South Korea -- in mid-August. The Vatican announced in January that Francis would visit South Korea from Aug. 14 to 18 and would participate Aug. 15 in the sixth Asian Youth Day to be held in the diocese of Daejeon, some 100 miles south of Seoul.

The Korean youth gathering, initially expected to be a joyful event, will undoubtedly now be seen, at least in part, through the lens of this tragedy. The Christian messages of suffering, death and resurrection, wrapped in mystery, come to us this Holy Week as especially poignant markers of faith. This will also be the case when Francis addresses Koreans on the ground in Korea four months from now.

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