Pope Francis’ five-day visit to Korea was a pastoral visit aimed at tending to Catholics here and, more broadly, throughout Asia.
Yet, his visit was followed closely by Koreans looking for comfort and inspiration from a religious leader who is an advocate for the poor and the weak. And the pope did not disappoint.
From the moment he landed at Seoul Air Base, where the people lined up to welcome him included family members of victims of the Sewol ferry sinking, migrant workers, North Korean refugees and a disabled person; to the parade before the beatification Mass of 124 martyrs at Gwanghwamun Plaza, when he stepped out of the vehicle to hold hands with a father whose child had died in the ferry sinking; to his visit to Kkottongnae, where he embraced and kissed the disabled; to the Mass at Myeongdong Cathedral, where former sex slaves for the Japanese military were invited to sit in the very front pew, the pope, fondly called “Papa” by his followers, showed his love and compassion for the poor, the weak and the alienated in our society.
Actions speak louder than words. People did not have to understand the pope’s language to be moved. All it took was listening to the aggrieved, looking into their eyes with compassion, and holding their hands to give them comfort and relief, to move them to tears. Through his actions, the pope showed how a leader stands and walks with his people.
To the families of the 10 Sewol ferry victims whose bodies have not yet been found, the pope wrote a letter which will be delivered to them at Paengmok Harbor, where they are still awaiting the return of their loved ones. The special attention that the pope paid to the families of the victims of the ferry disaster should shame all of us into thinking about the ways we could have helped alleviate their sorrow, pain and anguish.
At the Mass for peace and reconciliation held at Myeongdong Cathedral before his departure, the pope urged people to wholly forgive those who have sinned against them. Citing verses from the Bible in which Peter asks, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” and Jesus replies, “I do not say to you seven times, but 70 times seven,” the pope explained that the verses show the core of Christ’s message regarding reconciliation and peace.
In a message that could be interpreted as addressed to South Korean and North Korean leaders, the pope urged people to engage in dialogue, to meet, to overcome differences. He also called for generosity in offering humanitarian assistance.
Attending the Mass were President Park Geun-hye as well as former sex slaves for the Japanese military; workers laid off by Ssangyong Motor; villagers protesting the building of transmission towers in Miryang and a Naval base in Gangjeong, Jejudo Island; victims of forced evictions in Yongsan-gu, Seoul; North Korean refugees; families of those kidnapped by North Korea; the disabled; and others. The pope surely spoke to their hearts when he spoke of the need to completely forgive before peace and reconciliation can take place.
The pope’s message of forgiveness, peace and reconciliation was not just for those at Myeongdong Cathedral Monday. The message should not be lost on the country which faces growing economic disparity, ideological polarization and generational differences. The message could also apply to inter-Korean relations, encouraging dialogue between the two Koreas, and more broadly to the Northeast Asian region in general, where historical animosities remain stumbling blocks to peace.