By Nicholas Hamisevicz
For the first visit by the leader of the Catholic Church to Korea in 25 years, there were numerous expectations for a variety of issues. Pope Francis’ popularity and different leadership style brought about the possibility that concerns regarding the difficulties of inter-Korean relations, a Korean society distraught over a tragedy and economic uncertainty, the Catholic Church’s relationship with China, and many other matters, would be addressed during his visit. While some of these came about during the trip, the main themes of unification, the Sewol tragedy, and the gaps of wealth in society were highlighted at almost every event Pope Francis attended. Pope Francis offered his prayers, his spiritual leadership, and his compassion and focus on these issues during his trip to Korea. However, Pope Francis’ visit to Korea also provided an opportunity to clearly illustrate the important role religious freedom plays in helping address each of these problems facing the Korean society.
At the start of the visit, North Korea tried to grab the initial attention once again by “welcoming” a foreign dignitary to South Korea with short range rockets. Last month North Korea tested rockets a day before Chinese President Xi Jinping traveled to South Korea. This time, North Korea launched rockets on the same day Pope Francis arrived in South Korea. North Korea even had the audacity to blame the Pope for coming to South Korea on the day they were going to test their missiles.
From his first public statements in Korea to the last Mass he gave in the country, the pain of a divided country was evident in Pope Francis’ thoughts and prayers. Pope Francis said the cause of peace on the Korean peninsula is “close to our hearts” and expressed appreciation and encouragement for “the efforts being made in favor of reconciliation and stability on the Korean peninsula.” During his appearance at Asian Youth Day in Daejeon, Pope Francis responded to a question about unification by imploring people to pray for unification and to use language and connections to build hope for reconciliation between the two Koreas. On his last day in Korea, Pope Francis celebrated a Mass with a focus on the Korean peninsula. During his homily, he encouraged people to forgive others in order to be able to more honestly pray for peace and reconciliation, and in turn, be ready to receive the gift of unification.
In addition to the pain of division, addressing the pain of tragedy also permeated through Pope Francis’ actions in Korea. South Korean President Park Geun-hye expressed hope that Pope Francis’ visit would help heal the pain felt in Korea from the Sewol sinking, while many family members of the victims hoped Pope Francis would bring more attention to their plight and encourage the South Korean government to do more to reveal what happened during the accident. Pope Francis tried not to get involved in the politics of the tragedy, but he did a lot to show his support and care for the families. He met privately with family members, wore a yellow ribbon in memory of those who died, specifically offered prayers for the victims and their families, and baptized a father whose son died in the sinking. He even got out of his vehicle that was taking him around Gwanghwamun Square before the Mass of beatification for 124 Korean martyrs to greet family members affected by the Sewol tragedy.
Another issue that has been given attention in Korea is also one that Pope Francis has focused on since the beginning of his pontificate, which is the disparity between the rich and the poor. Income inequality has been a political and economic issue in South Korea. Pope Francis addressed similar concerns in a chapter of his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. In Korea, Pope Francis called upon the intercession of Mary to help people “combat the allure of materialism” and “reject inhuman economic models which create new forms of poverty and marginalize workers.” The Pope’s visit and his emphasis on these areas have caused other groups facing similar circumstances to try to get his attention and the attention of others to their situation.
These are three big issues for Pope Francis to try to address on a short trip to South Korea; however, he did speak specifically to all of them throughout his visit. Pope Francis tried to provide hope that prayer, attention, work, compassion, and God’s love can help create ways for peaceful resolutions to these problems. Pope Francis constantly spoke about the power of hope God provides for people. The Pope encouraged people to use prayer to bring about hope, which helps one work toward the goals of peace, justice, and unity. Pope Francis also emphasized the passion and energy in young people and in Korea itself to help improve the situations in communities around the world. Finally, as he has attempted to do since being elected the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis tried to personally demonstrate acts of compassion and understanding by meeting with the family members of those who died in the Sewol ferry accident, greeting comfort women, visiting a facility for the sick and disabled, and by traveling in a smaller car.
Implicit in Pope Francis’ visit to South Korea is the power of religious freedom in helping solve difficult issues. During the last Mass, Pope Francis stated he was confident that inter-religious cooperation could bring about a better world. Even with the three issues that were prominent throughout his visit, there is a role for religious freedom and religious organizations.
Religious freedom and the work of religious groups will be needed if there is a collapse in North Korea and as the difficult process toward unification unfolds. Father Robert Barron of Word On Fire Catholic Ministries describes how the “systematic denial of the Creator God” leads directly to “the negation of equality and the suppression of human rights,” and that this process is one of the first tactics used by ruthless dictators. The Kim family regime in North Korea has done the same thing. This process will need to be reversed during unification, and the proper role and engagement from religious groups and communities will help bring about that renewal of equality, freedom, and human rights.
With the Sewol tragedy, the question of life and death is one of the most difficult spiritual questions for a religious organization. However, the compassion and support provided by religious groups to members of its community and the larger society, along with the belief that life is not meaningless, helps with the healing process and connecting communities. Pope Francis tried to illustrate these aspects during his meetings with family members, his wearing of the yellow Sewol ribbon pin, and his prayer requests for the victims.
Lastly, with a disparity of wealth in society, religious freedom and religious organizations help provide support for the poor, both economically and politically. Moreover, religious freedom and religious traditions help create “upright citizens.” Upright citizens are engaged in the political process of their respective country, work hard to help themselves and their society, and also look out for the global citizenship. Pope Francis recognized this aspect in Korea. Korea is known for its transition from a developing economy to a developed one, but Pope Francis congratulated Korea for going from a “land of mission” to a “land of missionaries” that has provided assistance around the world.
With his first visit to Korea and Asia, it is clear that Pope Francis wanted to address three key issues that have been specifically on the minds of the Korean people. In his words, prayers, and actions, Pope Francis recognized the importance of Korean unification, the tragedy of the Sewol disaster, and the growing gap between the rich and the poor for Korean society. He tried to remind people that God’s love provides a hope that can energize and encourage people to continue to work toward solutions for difficult issues even when they seem impossible. This trip also highlighted the role of religious freedom must play as a tool and avenue for solving problems, especially the issues emphasized during Pope Francis’ time in Korea.
Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Academic Affairs and Research at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
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