Pope Francis consoled some of the most marginalized members of Korean society by holding their hands on Monday, the last day of his five-day visit to Korea.
The pontiff officiated a Mass at Myeongdong Cathedral in downtown Seoul, praying for reconciliation and peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Before the Mass, the pope took a few minutes to talk to some 20 men and women sitting in the cathedral’s front row, offering words of emotional and religious solace.
The group was a mixture of former sex slaves of the Japanese military during World War II, family members of people abducted by North Korea, and other marginalized members of South Korean society.
Pope Francis looks at a butterfly pin that was given to him by a woman who was forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II prior to the start of a Mass of reconciliation at Seoul’s main cathedral, Monday. (AP-Yonhap)
Pope Francis seemed as eager as ever to offer his full attention. He bent forward to hold hands with members of the group, pausing for a few seconds in front of some, apparently to listen to their words.
In the group were seven former “comfort women” ― a euphemism used to describe thousands of Asian and a small number of Dutch women forced to sexually serve the Japanese military during World War II. Only 55 known former sex slaves are still alive in South Korea, with an average age of over 88.
Pope Francis embraced some of the seven women at the cathedral. The ladies handed him a picture during their brief meeting, entitled “The Flower that Never Bloomed.” The picture was drawn by a deceased former comfort woman and symbolized the thousands of teenagers coerced into sexual slavery by Japan in World War II.
The women have been engaged in a decades-long struggle against the Japanese government for an official apology. Tokyo refuses to acknowledge any legal or financial responsibility.
Most of them avoided the public spotlight for most of their lives for fear of creating an unwanted social controversy. It was only in the early 1990s, 50 years after their initial sufferings began, that they spoke out about their suffering.
Pope Francis also briefly consoled fired workers of Ssangyong Motor Co., an automaker that laid off much of its workforce following a controversial 2009 lawsuit.
The pontiff also shook hands with North Korean defectors and families of those abducted by North Korean agents after the Korean War ended in 1953. Hundreds of South Korean citizens kidnapped by the North are presumed to be living north of the inter-Korean border, although Pyongyang authorities deny that such abductions ever happened.
In Monday’s Mass, Pope Francis underscored the need for peace in Korea.
Forgive one another, the pope told the congregation, which included President Park Geun-hye. The Catholic Church’s top clergyman proposed that both North and South end 60 years of mutual hatred.
The two Koreas are still technically at war, with the North recently criticizing the joint South Korean-U.S. Ulchi Freedom Guardian defense exercises, which kicked off on Monday.
By Jeong Hunny (firstname.lastname@example.org