The Pope, example of compassion and consolation for Korean society
by Vincenzo Faccioli Pintozzi
Not just Catholics, but all South Koreans are carefully analyzing the messages of Francis in his four-day visit to the peninsula. Closeness to those who suffer, reunification through the conversion of hearts, the power of the Cross of Christ are arousing debate on the front pages the day after the pontiff’s departure. The only public protest, small in size, was staged by Protestants who "now fear to losing importance and faithful".

Seoul (AsiaNews) - Newspaper and TV reporters, customers queuing in shops and even taxi drivers: any of these who have met a Westerner on the streets of Seoul have wanted to speak about one thing only, the Pope and of his apostolic visit to South Korea. Compassion towards those who suffer, the theme of reconciliation and of a Korea of "one family", the saving power of Christ and His Cross are being carefully analyzed. The debate continues, perhaps even more freely, the day after Francis' return to the Vatican.

This morning, the Joongang Daily, Korea Times, the Herald and other newspapers in the Korean language open with at least half of the front page dedicated to the pontiff. The main focus is on the large mass for reconciliation and peace celebrated yesterday morning in the Myeongdong Cathedral, in the heart of Seoul. Interestingly, analysts have today emphasised a passage of Francis' homily that was little stressed yesterday: reunification and peace on the Korean peninsula and the rest of the Asian region, will only take place "through the conversion of hearts".

An editorial in the Chosun Ilbo, the Conservative daily and close to the government, asks Pyongyang to "understand this request" and in some way "answer. Because the conversion Francis spoke about concerns not only Catholics, but us all". In other words, peace can only come about with a change of attitude. Similarly, the comment in the Joongang that fills the entire second page headlines: "The Pope's compassion, a call for the revival of a troubled Korea". The author takes into account the various issues addressed by Francis and accepts them from the social point of view, inviting readers to take the words spoken in these days and to "not let them fly away like a balloon. Make them take root in your soul, in order to bear new and fruitful trees".

Great prominence has been given - and not just in the press - to the closeness shown by Francis to family members of the victims of Sewol and the "comfort women" whom he met yesterday in the cathedral. The Pope personally consoled the parents of those who drowned on 16 April and even sent them a handwritten letter asking for their "forgiveness" for not having been able to visit them all. Francis also asked "everyone" to commit themselves to recover the bodies of 10 people still missing: among these, there are three Catholics.

His visit to the "village of flowers" in Kkottongnae is a chapter to itself. Here the Pope greeted and spoke briefly with all in-house guests, children and elderly, abandoned or disabled. There are images of the Pope embracing a boy suffering from Down syndrome, caressing the face of a woman with cerebral palsy, stopping to touch an elderly abandoned woman have trended throughout the nation and continue to be broadcast by the news . In letters prepared by KBS state television to announce the live events of the pope, the last picture is the one of the Pope with sick children.

Fr. John Lee (priest engaged in ministering to the sick) explains to AsiaNews "this is explained by the fact that in Korean culture with disabilities are at best still a mystery and at worst, a burden. I believe that they were deeply shaken to see Francis, who in their mind is a sort of 'Catholic King', kissing and embracing these people with such warmth. However, we have yet to see if the results are real or just a façade".

The meeting with the young people and the theme of martyrdom are intertwined. During the events of the Sixth Asian Youth Day, which was the official reason for the Pope's visit to Korea, the reference to the example of the Fathers of the Church in Korea has been constant. Several times the Pope asked the thousands of young people who came from all over Asia to greet him and to celebrate the day with him, to learn from those who have lost their lives to defend the faith.

This particular aspect, perhaps too "Catholic" to attract the attention of civil society, was featured on the day of the beatification of 124 Korean martyrs. "Impressive," headlined the Korean financial daily (Hangook Ilbo), above the picture of Gwanghwamun square filled with 1 million faithful. But more than anything else public's attention and the imagination were captured by the fact that, with barely 5 million members across the country, 1 million travelled to Seoul on August 15 to celebrate this great event.

This aspect has also caught the attention (somewhat negatively) of a small part of the Protestant community, the only group to protest "against" Francis. Yesterday evening, a small group of around 200 people marched through the center of Seoul to "celebrate" the departure of the Pope, coming from inside the cathedral (right after they were turned away by the guards). Armed with about 10 million members, accounting for 20% of the population, Korean Protestants have suffered a series of scandals in recent months that have hit their congregations and undermined their credibility. The presence of the Pope, says a missionary to AsiaNews, "has made them understand what it means to evangelize. And I do not think they liked it".