Seoul Catches Francis Syndrome
Some days have passed since a humble and empathetic Pope arrived in Seoul, South Korea, reaching out to a whole continent and offering balm for the soul of a county that is deeply divided -- and not only between north and south.
When the Holy Father landed on August 14, expectations had already soared. Not only some 5.4 million Catholics eagerly awaited their beloved "Papa," but most of Seoul -- regardless of his or her belief -- was curious what this gentle and unpretentious spiritual leader would have to say. Some strongly anticipated the visit would be "the event of the year."
For the past week, it seemed as if all Korean newspapers displayed nothing but cover stories and pictures of Pope Francis. The key words "Pope," "warm comfort," and "peace and reconciliation" were most searched for and talked about on social media and the Internet, according to the analysis of the big data company TAPACROSS.
But why is it that the whole country was electrified by the presence of religious leader who only represents a minority of roughly 3.4 percent of the Asian population?
Today, the Republic of South Korea is a highly modernized, competitive and wealthy society. After overcoming the hardships of the Korean War and its aftermath, and thanks to an unprecedented economic development owing to the hard work and sacrifice of two generations, Korea has joined the club of the world's leading economic powers. Korean youth now enjoy the amenities of a modern and prosperous lifestyle.
But there is downside to this miracle: if a society develops too fast, it is in danger of losing its substance. Too many Koreans are obsessed with success, fast money, power, and status symbols. You need to show off what you have, and it had better be a Mercedes Benz, a Coco Chanel label, and a son at Harvard University. It is hard for the majority to live up to such expectations and many come up short -- or pile up insurmountable debt.
Also, the country is still deeply traumatized by the tragic sinking of the ferry boat "Sewol," an accident claiming the lives of nearly 300 people, most of them children, and revealing a disastrous crisis management and the ruthlessness, greed, and ignorance of those who were responsible.
Politically, Korea's society seems irreconcilably divided. Unfortunately, not even the Korean Catholic Church is untouched by that split. It too is divided, along political lines, into progressive and conservative groups.Finally, there is the division of the Korean Peninsula herself. A nation, technically still at war with their brothers and sisters on the other side of the Demilitarized Zone.
Such was the difficult setting of the stage for the Pope, but he knew how to act on it with remarkable poise and moral authority, touching the hearts of millions. Francis had accepted an invitation by Bishop Lazzaro Heung-sik You of Daejeon to attend the Asia Youth Day. This opened a door for the Pontiff to address and meet not only the Korean faithful, but the whole Catholic church of Asia. Pope Francis also came to preside over the beatification of 124 Korean martyrs.
He met Asian and Korean youth on many occasions and addressed them directly and from the very bottom of his heart. He carefully listened to their problems and questions and responded to them in a language they could understand. He said they were not only the future, but also the present of their Church; and he reminded them of their rich Asian cultural heritage. He entreated them to get actively involved with their society and contribute the values of their Catholic faith. Further, he urged them to resist egotism and naked materialism and to fight for fairness in order to build up a society that protects and supports its weakest members.
The Holy Father emphasized that Korea is one country and one family and asked Asia's youth to offer silent prayer for its unification. "Pray for our brothers in the North. Just as in a family, there ought to be neither winners nor losers...Korea is united in a common language. When we speak the same tongue in a family, there is always hope."
Addressing President Park Geun-Hye and other Korean authorities, Francis stressed the fact that peace is a "fruit of dialogue." He emphasized the lasting challenge for diplomats to overcome walls of hatred and mistrust, and he reminded his audience that diplomacy is "the art of the possible...based on the firm and persevering conviction that peace can be won through quiet listening and dialogue, rather than by mutual recriminations, fruitless criticisms and displays of force."
In the same talk, he also strongly appealed to Korean decision-makers to be mindful that in this globalized economy, "our understanding of the common good, of progress and development, must ultimately be written in human rather than merely economic terms."
The Pope was also frank and outspoken in his words to bishops, religious, and lay people, lauding the latter for their exceptional historical role in society and reminding the clerics that the Church ought to be a "church of the poor." He warned against adopting "models of management, planning, and organization drawn from the business world" and a "lifestyle and mentality guided more by worldly criteria of success, and indeed power."
In his meeting with religious, Pope Francis was quite bold, saying that "the hypocrisy of those consecrated men and women who profess vows of poverty, yet live like the rich, wounds the souls of the faithful and harms the Church."
However, even more than with all his carefully chosen words, Pope Francis won the love and respect of Koreans through small and spontaneous gestures, his honest empathy for the less fortunate and his modest appearance.
It was evident that he gave the same or even more time and importance to talking with the poor than with dignitaries. He met with families who lost loved ones on the "Sewol" on five occasions and wore the yellow ribbon he had received from them as a sign of solidarity for the rest of the trip. He also found time within his tight schedule to baptize one of the fathers who had lost a son in the accident and who asked him for the sacrament when they first met. On his way to the altar of the beatification Mass, he spontaneously got out of the car, in order to speak to another bereaved father who had gone on a hunger strike to demand that an investigation committee be established.
Before the Mass for peace and reconciliation, he met with religious leaders of other Korean faiths and spoke with "comfort women" who had been forced into sex slavery during the Japanese occupation. He silently prayed in the "garden of aborted children." spent time with the disabled, greeted North Korean refugees and never turned down a request, even posing with a smile for "selfies" with young people. Rather than speaking words of pity, he simply listened, touched, and hugged those approaching him, spreading an aura of love and true empathy.
Nowadays, within South Korean society's bruised and distorted self-awareness, there is a deep-seated and honest desire for fatherly leadership -- a warm-hearted and "true hero" who really cares and gives guidance on the way through troubled waters.
Even though less than 11 percent of Koreans are Catholic, this notion now has a name: After the Pope's five-day visit, Koreans of all religious affiliations call it the "Francis syndrome."