Pope Francis smiled, waved, and hugged hundreds of the underprivileged during his visit to South Korea this week, amplifying his image as the people’s pope.
The top cleric of the Catholic Church met disabled children, North Korean escapees, and former sex slaves of the Japanese military during his event-packed five-day tour of Korea.
But Pope Francis’s brief meeting with the father of a victim of the April ferry Sewol disaster on Saturday left a strong impression on South Koreans, according to media reports and social commentators.
On Monday, the last day of the papal visit, the pope will hold a Mass at the Myeongdong Cathedral near downtown Seoul to pray for peace and reconciliation between North and South Korea. The two countries are still technically at war, having fought the Korean War from 1950 to 1953.
North Korean escapees who have resettled in the South will be invited. Most former North Koreans living south of the inter-Korean border usually suffer from economic hardship, having difficulty adjusting to a capitalist society after having lived in a communist one for much of their lives.
They are also often separated from families still living in the North. Many of the left-behind families are imprisoned in one of the North’s political gulags as punishment for letting their families flee to the South.
Women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II will also attend the morning Mass. Most of them are in their 80s, or older, and have suffered from the aftereffects of forced sexual servitude, including diseases to the womb, or indelible psychological scars.
They are sometimes referred to as “comfort women,” a euphemistic term some of them dislike. The Japanese government refuses to take legal or financial responsibility for them.
“I will tell everything to the pope,” Kang Il-chul, a former sex slave said in a recent television interview.
The pope’s visit to a welfare center run by Catholic officials in Eumseong, North Chungcheong Pronvince on Saturday also left a strong impression. There, Pope Francis talked to disabled children, most of whom were abandoned by their biological parents. His brief prayer at a memorial to unborn children behind the care center also hinted at the pope’s philosophy against abortion.
But just before Saturday’s beatification ceremony, Pope Francis made one of his most emotional acts since coming to Korea, when he got out of his car in an unusual move.
The pontiff slowly walked to speak to Kim Young-oh, the father of a high school student killed in the Sewol accident.
The car was conducting a slow tour of Gwanghwamun Square amid millions of spectators who had gathered to watch Saturday’s beatification Mass.
Kim has been on a hunger strike at the square since July 14 to protest the government’s response to the Sewol accident and failed rescue efforts.
Pope Francis patiently listened to Kim, holding hands with the 47-year-old man. Cameras flashed as the scene was broadcast live to millions of South Koreans sitting in front of televisions.
“Please, do not forget the Sewol (accident),” the bearded Kim said as he gave a letter to the pope.
The pontiff silently nodded apparently to show he understood, as he put the envelope in his pocket.
Kim and other bereaved families have been urging lawmakers to pass a special bill that will create an independent inquiry panel to investigate the most senior government authorities in relation to the Sewol accident. Lawmakers, government executives, and even members of the presidential staff have been accused of making mistakes during follow-up rescue operations.
Rival political parties have been in a weekslong deadlock over the bill.
By Jeong Hunny (firstname.lastname@example.org