The apostolic trip, he told Vatican Radio Aug. 18, was a witness to the Pope’s “pastoral love and attention, not only for Christians, but for all the Asian continent.”
The principal themes of the visit were “peace and reconciliation,” according to Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, and for many, these were most visibly seen when the Holy Father embraced abandoned and disabled young people at a rehabilitation center in Kkottongnae near Seoul.
That excursion, to the “Village of Flowers” on Aug. 16, was “a very special visit” that will “remain engraved in the memory of Koreans,” said Bishop Peter Kang U-il, president of the Korean bishops’ conference. Father Lombardi said the visit, which ran long, was the “strongest image” of the entire trip.
Recalling other significant moments, Bishop Kang highlighted the Pope’s embrace of families of victims of the ferry disaster in Sewol, which cost more than 300 lives, mostly of children. By his presence and sharing in their suffering, the bishop told reporters, it was a “strong sign of spiritual closeness that we will not forget.”
The Pope’s Aug. 13-18 visit had two primary purposes: to beatify 124 Korean martyrs, killed for the faith during 19th-century persecution, and to celebrate the Sixth Asian Youth Day. But it also comprised a good deal else: Francis gave 12 homilies and discourses in total, covering a wide number of themes, including the virtues of genuine dialogue, solidarity with the poor and the importance of Jesus in reconciliation. The Pope also delighted Koreans with many spontaneous gestures of kindness.
The Holy Father underlined the importance of Christian hope in his first address, holding up the example of the martyrs in the presence of state authorities at the “Blue House” presidential palace. Alluding to the conflict between North and South Korea, he advocated “quiet listening and dialogue” over “mutual recriminations, fruitless criticisms and displays of force.”
Addressing Korean bishops later, he warned them not to succumb to a “worldly mentality” that “dissipates all missionary fervor,” but, instead, to constantly go to “the peripheries of contemporary society,” reaching out to the young, elderly, poor, refugees and migrants.
At Mass on the feast of the Assumption in the World Cup Stadium in Daejeon, the Pope proposed the hope of the Gospel as “the antidote to the spirit of despair” and “inner sadness and emptiness” in today’s society. He called on Our Lady to help each person “live and work as signs” of this hope.
In a long, improvised speech to young Asians at the Shrine of Solmoe on the same day, Francis told those present to remember three things: the importance of prayer, the Eucharist and helping others, especially the poor. He also conveyed that Korea is one family.
“Think about your brothers and sisters in the North: They speak the same language, and when the same language is spoken in a family, there is room for hope,” he said, advising them to pray: “‘Lord, we are one family; help us. Help us to be united. You can do it.’”
Evangelized by the People
In front of 800,000 faithful at the Mass in Seoul the following day, to beatify Paul Yun Ji-chung and his 123 companions, Francis recalled how Korea was initially evangelized not by missionaries, but through the “hearts and minds of the Korean people themselves.” He spoke of the “reconciling love of Christ,” pointing out that Jesus asks the Father to “consecrate and protect us,” but not to take us “out of the world.” In this, he said, “the martyrs show us the way.”
They “call out to us to put Christ first,” he said, and teach us the “importance of charity”; he said their example has “much to say” to today’s societies, where, “alongside immense wealth, dire poverty is silently growing.” The martyrs’ legacy, he added, is an inspiration to work towards a “more just, free and reconciled society.”
To Korean religious, the Pope gave a discourse that reflected on how chastity, poverty and obedience are a “joyful witness to God’s love.” But he warned of the hypocrisy of consecrated men and women who profess vows of poverty “yet live like the rich,” wounding souls and harming the Church. The joy of the religious vocation, he said, must be shared and serve to “attract and nurture vocations.”
In a meeting with Asian bishops in Haemi on the penultimate day of his visit, the Pope stressed how real dialogue is only possible if “we are conscious of our own identity.” He warned against the “deceptive light” of relativism and a “superficiality” made up of the “latest fads, gadgets and distractions, rather than attending to the things that really matter.” He also cautioned against the “great harm” of agreeing to disagree, “so as not to make waves” and “hiding behind” easy answers and regulations.
Instead, he advocated a “capacity for empathy,” openness and acceptance. “Christians don’t come as conquerors, [but] to walk together,” he said. He also “earnestly” expressed his hope within this context that Asian countries without full diplomatic relations with Holy See — for example China and Vietnam — won’t hesitate to “further dialogue for the benefit of all.”
The theme for Asian Youth Day was “Asian youth, wake up!”; and the Pope urged young people to turn their “natural optimism into Christian hope,” their “energy into moral virtue” and their goodwill “into genuine self-sacrificing love.”
‘Just and Humane Society’
After meeting religious leaders on his final day, during which he spoke of the need to “walk together” in the presence of God, Francis celebrated a final Mass for “peace and reconciliation.” He urged Koreans to build a “truly just and humane society,” to “firmly reject a mindset shaped by suspicion, confrontation and competition and instead to shape a culture formed by the teaching of the Gospel and the noblest traditional values of the Korean people.”
Forgiveness, he stressed, “is the door which leads to reconciliation,” and he encouraged Koreans to “trust in the power of Christ’s cross” in order to welcome its “reconciling grace.” Through the cross, he asserted, Christ “reveals the power of God to bridge every division” and re-establishes the “original bonds of brotherly love.”
Other highlights of the visit included the Pope stopping to pray at a “Cemetery for Aborted Children” in Kkottongnae, alighting the popemobile to speak to a relative of a victim of the Sewol ferry disaster, baptizing a father who lost a son in the tragedy and sending two telegrams of good wishes to China, which had allowed a pope to fly through its airspace for the first time. He also shunned a helicopter to ride with commuters on a high-speed train from Seoul to Daejeon and made an unscheduled visit to Korean Jesuits in the nation’s capital.
Bishop Kang told Fides news agency the Pope’s visit was “a success for the faith, for the media coverage, for the organization.” The Pope, he added, left “an indelible mark” on the country.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.