Pope Francis answers Korea's longing for 'fatherly leadership'
By Johannes Klausa
SEOUL, South Korea Seven days have
passed since a chartered Alitalia-flight touched ground at Seoul Air Base, and
a humble and empathetic Pope arrived, reaching out to a whole continent and
offering balm for the soul of a county that is deeply divided—and not only
between north and south.
When the Holy Father landed in Seoul
Aug. 14, expectations had already soared enormously. Not only some 5.4 million
Catholics eagerly awaited their beloved “Papa,” but most everybody in Seoul—regardless
of his or her belief—was curious what this gentle and unpretentious spiritual
leader of the western world would have to say. Most people strongly anticipated
the visit would be “the event of the year.”
For the past week, it seemed as if
all Korean newspapers displayed nothing but cover stories and pictures of Pope
Francis. The key words “Pope,” “warm comfort,” as well as “peace and
reconciliation” were most searched for and talked about on social media and the
internet, according to the analysis of the big data company TAPACROSS. But why is
it that the whole country was electrified by the presence of religious leader
who only represents a minority of roughly 3.4 percent of the Asian population?
Today, the Republic of South Korea
is a highly modernized, competitive and wealthy society. After overcoming the
hardships of the Korean War and its aftermath, and thanks to an unprecedented
economic development owing to the hard work and sacrifice of two generations,
Korea has joined the club of the world’s leading economic powers; Korean youth
now enjoy the amenities of a modern and prosperous lifestyle.
There is downside to this miracle:
if a society develops too fast, it is in danger of losing its humane substance.
Many Koreans are truly obsessed with success, fast money, power, and status
symbols. You need to show off what you have, and it had better be a Mercedes
Benz, a Coco Chanel label, and a son at Harvard University. Obviously, it is
impossible for the majority to live up to such exaggerated expectations; so
many people feel like losers—or pile up insurmountable debt.
Also, the country is still deeply
traumatized by the tragic sinking of the ferry boat “Sewol,” an accident
claiming the lives of nearly 300 people, most of them children, and revealing a
disastrous crisis management and the ruthlessness, greed, and ignorance of
those who were responsible.
Politically, Korea’s society seems
irreconcilably divided in two. Both camps are full of hate and mistrust for the
other side. One only knows friend or foe, nothing in-between. Unfortunately,
not even the Korean Catholic Church is untouched by that split. It too is
divided, along political lines, into progressive and conservative groups.
Finally, there is the division of
the Korean Peninsula herself. A nation, technically still at war with their
brothers and sisters on the other side of the Demilitarized Zone.
Such was the difficult setting of the stage
for the Pope, but he knew how to act on it with remarkable poise and moral
authority, touching the hearts of millions.
Francis had accepted an invitation
by the Bishop, Lazzaro Heung-sik You of Daejeon to attend the Asia Youth Day.
This opened a door for the Pontiff to address and meet not only the Korean
faithful, but the whole Catholic church of Asia. Pope Benedict had never
traveled to Asia, in spite of the incredible growth of the Asian Church and the
continent’s growing political and strategic importance. Pope Francis also came
to preside over the beatification of 124 Korean martyrs.
He met Asian and Korean youth on
many occasions and addressed them directly and from the very bottom of his
heart. He carefully listened to their problems and questions and responded to
them in a language they could understand. He said they were not only the
future, but also the present of their Church; and he reminded them of their
rich Asian cultural heritage. He entreated them to get actively involved with
their society and contribute the values of their Catholic faith. Further, he
urged them to resist egotism and naked materialism and to fight for fairness in
order to build up a society that protects and supports its weakest members.
The Holy Father emphasized that
Korea is one country and one family and asked Asia’s youth to offer silent
prayer for its unification. "Pray for our brothers in the North. Just as
in a family, there ought to be neither winners nor losers (…) Korea is united
in a common language. When we speak the same tongue in a family, there is
Addressing President Park Geun-Hye
and other Korean authorities, Francis stressed the fact that peace is a “fruit
of dialogue.” He emphasized the lasting challenge for diplomats to overcome walls of hatred and
mistrust, and he reminded his audience
that diplomacy is “the art of the possible …, based on the firm and persevering
conviction that peace can be won through quiet listening and dialogue, rather
than by mutual recriminations, fruitless criticisms and displays of force.”
In the same talk, he also strongly
appealed to Korean decision-makers to be mindful that in this globalized economy,
“our understanding of the common good, of progress and development, must
ultimately be written in human rather than merely economic terms.”
The Pope was also frank and
outspoken in his words to bishops, religious and lay people, lauding the latter
for their exceptional historical role in society and reminding the clerics that
the Church ought to be a “church of the poor.” He warned against adopting
“models of management, planning, and organization drawn from the business
world” and a “lifestyle and mentality guided more by worldly criteria of
success, and indeed power.”
In his meeting with religious, Pope
Francis was quite bold, saying that “the hypocrisy of those consecrated men and
women who profess vows of poverty, yet live like the rich, wounds the souls of
the faithful and harms the Church.”
However, even more than with all his
carefully chosen words, Pope Francis won the love and respect of Koreans
through small and spontaneous gestures, his honest empathy for the less
fortunate and his modest appearance.
It was evident that he gave the same
or even more time and importance to talking with the poor than with dignitaries.
He met with families who lost loved ones on the “Sewol” on five occasions and
wore the yellow ribbon he had received from them as a sign of solidarity for
the rest of the trip. He also found time within his tight schedule to baptize
one of the fathers who had lost a son in the accident and who asked him for the
sacrament when they first met. On his way to the altar of the beatification
Mass attended by a million people, he spontaneously got out of the car, in
order to speak to another bereaved father who had gone on a hunger strike to
demand that an investigation committee be established.
Before the Mass for peace and
reconciliation, he met with religious leaders of other Korean faiths and spoke
with “comfort women” who had been forced into sex slavery during the Japanese
occupation. He silently prayed in the “garden of aborted children.” spent time
with the disabled, greeted North Korean refugees and never turned down a
request, even posing with a smile for “selfies” with young people. Rather than
speaking words of pity, he simply listened, touched and hugged those approaching
him, spreading an aura of love and true empathy.
Nowadays, within South Korean
society’s bruised and distorted self-awareness, there is a deep-seated and
honest desire for fatherly leadership—a warm-hearted and ‘true hero’ who really
cares and gives guidance on the way through troubled waters. Even though less
than 11 percent of Koreans are Catholic, this notion now has a name: After the
Pope’s five-day visit, Koreans of all religious affiliations call it the
Klausa is the director of the newly-opened office of Aid to the Church in Need
With picture of Pope Francis in South Korea (© ACN)