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[Weekender] Korea awaits ‘people’s pope’

Last year, a 6-year-old boy in a yellow shirt wandered up on the stage during Pope Francis’ address to the large crowd at St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City.

The boy sat on the pope’s chair and hung out on the stage. He then clung onto the pope’s legs and refused to leave, even after promises of candy or cardinals’ other efforts to escort him away. The pope patted the boy’s head and gave him a generous smile as he delivered his speech.

It was just another account of what Pope Francis is known for.

Unlike the past pontiffs who have been less approachable, the pope has already established himself as a “people’s pope” for his humbleness and likability.

It is no exception in Korea. As the nation awaits Pope Francis’ visit to the nation next week, Catholics and non-Catholics alike show an increasing interest in the pope for practicing what he preaches: compassion, humility and openness.

Growing attention to the pope is reflected in bookstores. Even life-size cutouts of him with open arms welcome visitors to special sections with dozens of books on him.
Life-size cut-outs of the pope greet people as they enter a section dedicated to 30 or more different kinds of books on the pope at a large bookstore in Korea. (Yonhap)
Life-size cut-outs of the pope greet people as they enter a section dedicated to 30 or more different kinds of books on the pope at a large bookstore in Korea. (Yonhap)

“Over 34 new books on Pope Francis were published this year alone,” said Jin Young-kyun from Kyobo Bookstore. Male and female readers have an almost equal amount of interest in the pope. “We expect more books to be published as demand rises.”

Lee Jong-bok, a Catholic in her 50s, said she believes the pope’s teachings on human dignity are relevant to all age groups and nations.

“The pope is not only a religious leader, but also someone who provides moral guidance to people. We can learn a lot from his valuable words,” she said while browsing through the books on the pope.

“I find myself very interested in this humble pope,” said Song Jun-kyu, an office worker in his 30s. “I think it is great that a revered figure like him visits Korea because there aren’t that many great leaders in today’s society. I am looking forward to hearing his messages on North Korea and many social agenda facing our society.”

Some visit bookstores, while others follow the pope on Twitter.

The pope is an avid social networker, with over 14.1 million followers on his Twitter account in nine languages. He delivers succinct yet heartwarming messages of wisdom each day.

Among the millions of followers, the proportion of Koreans have rapidly increased, especially since April, when the pope voiced his condolences for the Sewol ferry disaster victims and families through Twitter. It was retweeted by more than 12,000 people.

Sister Claudia Lee Hae-in recently published a book titled “The Pope’s Twitter,” where she compiled about 100 tweets from the pope and offered her reflection and prayer alongside. The book is a favorite for young people.

An exhibition of the pope is underway in Gwanghwamun in central Seoul, the same place where the most anticipated event of the papal visit, the beatification Mass, will take place.

“Hello Francisco” is an exhibition featuring photographs provided by the Vatican and photographer Paik Nam-sik, who has followed pontiffs for 46 years, taking pictures of major Vatican events.

Since the opening in July, many people have visited the exhibition. “The number of visitors from provincial areas are increasing noticeably, most of them being families with kids,” said Park Young-mi, a communications officer of the exhibition.

“I thought it would be a good educational opportunity for kids to learn about the pope,” said Yun Ji-hae, a mother of two elementary school girls. “This pope feels very close to us, especially since he is visiting Korea.

“I hope he can provide inspiring and heart-warming messages that will touch people who need them.”

By Ahn Sung-mi (
Korea Herald Youtube