“Forgive and be united as one people.” That was Pope Francis’ last message to Koreans as he wrapped up an event-packed five-day tour of a country divided along ideological, social and economic lines.
Leading a solemn Mass at Seoul’s Myeongdong Cathedral, he urged the people of the two Koreas to “firmly reject a mindset shaped by suspicion, confrontation and competition,” and to be united as “one family and one people.”
“Forgiveness is the door that leads to reconciliation,” the top Catholic cleric said in his sermon.
The Mass, dedicated to peace and reconciliation in the divided Korea, was his last official task before flying back to the Vatican at around 1 p.m.
Some 1,000 figures representing all walks of life in Korea were in attendance, including seven elderly women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. The pope blessed and consoled them before he began the Mass. President Park Geun-hye also attended the service.
|Pope Francis consoles an elderly Korean woman who was forced to serve as a sex slave for the Japanese army during World War II before the start of a Mass at Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul on Monday. She was one of seven “comfort women” in attendance. (Joint Press)|
“The cross of Christ reveals the power of God to bridge every division, to heal every wound and to reestablish the original bonds of brotherly love. This, then, is the message which I leave you as I conclude my visit to Korea. Trust in the power of Christ’s cross,” the pontiff said.
It was a fitting finale of what was for Koreans a series of moving images of the pope reaching out to people on the margins of Korean society, embracing and consoling them.
Despite his wild popularity and Koreans’ enthusiastic reception, the Holy Father left Korea with no farewell ceremony, a continuation of his humble and simple style.
Soon after the airplane took off, he sent a message to Koreans through the official communication channel between the pilot and air traffic control centers.
“As I depart Korea for my return flight to Rome, I wish to express my deep gratitude to your Excellency (President Park) and beloved of Korean people,” he said in a message sent from the sky. It was read by his pilot and received by staff at the Incheon control center.
“I evoke divine blessing upon you all as I renew my prayer for the peace and well-being on the Korean Peninsula,” it read.
The Aug. 14-18 visit was his first papal visit to Asia. For Koreans, it was the third visit by the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, following those of the late Pope John Paul II in 1984 and 1989.
Among the highlights of the Catholic leader’s five-day visit, the Holy Father on Saturday beatified 124 Korean martyrs in an outdoor Mass at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul in front of some 800,000 spectators.
At the square, where the martyrs were once tortured and beheaded for their faith during the Joseon era, the pope gave Korea’s 5.4 million Catholics a strong message of encouragement.
Meeting some 70 bishops gathered from all across Asia to meet him on Sunday, the pope made a strong gesture of outreach to the region’s communist-ruled nations, saying he earnestly hoped for dialogue with them.
Everywhere he went, he was greeted by huge crowds. His every move was heavily covered by media, which paid a great deal of attention to his personal humility and approachable demeanor, something that Koreans say they rarely find in their leaders.
What Koreans may remember the most from the pope’s visit, however, were his meetings with those suffering due to the Sewol ferry disaster.
In his efforts to provide solace for their pain and loss, the pontiff met bereaved family members on three occasions and baptized one of them in person. He also left a letter for the families of the 10 people still missing, whom he could not personally console. In the letter, he prayed for their return.
The pope “gave us great solace,” said Kim Byung-kwon, a representative of the victims’ families. “He gave us strength.”
The ferry Sewol sank on April 16, killing over 300 passengers, mostly high school students on an organized trip. Four months later, Korean politicians still cannot agree on what steps should be taken to investigate the incident and prevent such disasters from reoccurring. Some of the family members are on a hunger strike, demanding an independent investigation.
“Many Koreans seem to feel moved, watching the pope reach out to the people in pain and sorrow,” said Kwak Keum-joo, a psychology professor at Seoul National University.
They found a new model of leadership ― a leader who cares and reaches out first, rather than hiding behind authority, she said.
“Even though Pope Francis stayed in Korea only a few days, he inspired us fully with the consolation, compassion and hope that many of us earnestly needed,” Bishop Peter Kang U-il, head of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea, said in a statement.
He expressed hope that the country will follow the example of the pope, “overcoming hostility and conflicts to become a society of compassion and respect.”
The pope will return to Asia in January with visits to the Philippines and Sri Lanka, resuming his Asian missionary push that he began here in Korea.
By Lee Sun-young (firstname.lastname@example.org