During his five-day visit, Francis plans to beatify 124 Korean martyrs and encourage a vibrant and growing local church seen as a model for the future of Catholicism.

At an airport just south of Seoul, the Pope shook hands with four relatives of a South Korean ferry which sank and killed more than 300 people.

Some elderly Catholics wiped tears from their faces, bowing deeply as they greeted the Pope. A boy and girl in traditional Korean dress presented Francis with a bouquet of flowers. The pope then stepped into a small, black, locally made car for the trip into Seoul, where he and President Park Geun-hye were expected to make speeches.

As his plane flew through Chinese airspace on the way to South Korea early on Wednesday, Pope Francis sent a telegram of greetings and prayers to Chinese President Xi Jinping. It was a rare opportunity for an exchange since the Holy See and Beijing have no diplomatic relations, and furthers a low-key push for better relations with China and efforts to heal a rift between the Chinese authorities and those Catholics who worship outside the state-recognized church.

Vatican protocol calls for Francis to send telegrams to heads of state whenever he flies through their airspace.

Usually they pass unnoticed, but today's telegram was unique because the last time a pope wanted to fly over China, in 1989, Beijing refused.

Vatican officials say there is a dialogue with Chinese authorities. But the core issue dividing them was ‘Rome's insistence on naming bishops’ remains.

Relations between Beijing and Rome have been tense since 1951, when China severed ties with the Holy Sea after the officially atheistic Communist Party took power and set up its own church outside the pope's authority. China persecuted the church for years until restoring a degree of religious freedom and freeing imprisoned priests in the late 1970s.

For the Vatican, the main stumbling block remains the insistence of the state-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association to name bishops without papal consent to administer over the country's estimated 12 million Catholics.

Other highlights of Francis' visit include his participation in a Catholic festival for young believers from around Asia and a Mass for peace and reconciliation on the war-divided Korean Peninsula. A ceremony on Saturday to beatify Korean martyrs who perished for their faith from 1791 to 1888 could draw about 1 million people.

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