Can 100 hours of Pope Francis really change South Korea?

Posted on : 2014-08-19 15:05 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Pope’s visit called attention to this society of deprivation, now S. Korea’s leaders need to make real changes
 at the end of his five-day trip to South Korea
at the end of his five-day trip to South Korea

By Kim Young-hee, Choi Jae-bong, senior staff writers and Noh Hyun-woong, staff reporter

Pope Francis arrived at the sendoff ceremony site at Seoul Airbase in Seongnam carrying an old black bag. The smile never left his face, even after a grueling schedule of over 16 official and unofficial events between his arrival in South Korea on the morning of Aug. 14 and his departure in the early afternoon of Aug. 18.

The Pope was in South Korea for less than 100 hours. The things he talked about - tending the vulnerable, wariness of looking to wealth as an answer for everything, praying for peace - may be things that people have talked about a great deal already. But even the most trenchant analyses by politicians or economists would not have offered such a piercing portrait, in such a short time, of a society of deprivation. The Pope did not mince words when discussing these contradictions, either. He did not hesitate to say things that might shock the people with vested interests in that society. And his message had all the more resonance for being founded in the sincerest of empathy.

Those happy hundred hours are over now. One of the pope’s messages was that “the sleeping person cannot make others sing, dance, or rejoice.” People from all walks of life agreed that it was South Korea’s turn to process the Pope’s message and put it into practice.

The desire for this message was so strong that over 20 fan sites cropped up on the country’s online portal sites just during his trip. The numbers are also a rebuke of the country’s leadership.

“By going to the people politicians have cast aside and giving them comfort, he was giving a wake-up call to the political powers who have forgotten their responsibility,” said novelist Jo Jung-rae. “The pope may have left now, but we need to keep feeling that slap in the face. And that goes for me and every other intellectual in this country, too.”

It’s a message that was echoed by South Chungcheong Gov. Ahn Hee-jung.

“As someone who practices ‘real politics,’ I felt ashamed,” Ahn said. “It’s shameful that politicians and the administration can’t solve these social conflicts, and people have to turn to the Pope. I feel mortified.”

So where to start? “I think it’s time for some new leadership in this society,” said Chin Young, a lawmaker for the ruling Saenuri Party.

Ahn argued, “It’s gone beyond factions and parties here. We’ve lost too many assets that can be trusted even when your opinions are different. We need to build that trust and respect between people of different views.”

But the reconciliation that the Pope talked about wasn’t only of the unconditional type.

“What the Pope stressed was reconciliation and forgiveness rooted in justice,” said attorney Kim Hyung-tae, chairman of the Catholic Human Rights Committee. “He was talking about the reconciliation and forgiveness that you do after you’ve set right an alienated and suffering society with justice.”

Jung Sung-in, a professor of economics at Hongik University, emphasized the meaning of justice in the pope’s message.

“He talked about how peace was the result of justice,” Jung said. “Justice doesn’t mean saying, ‘Let’s just ignore everything,’ ‘Let’s just forgive,’ ‘We’re all the same,’ just for the sake of peace.”

“I remember [Saenuri Party chairman] Kim Moo-sung saying, ‘Has the opposition party ever made a concession? It’s always the ruling party that concedes,‘” he continued. “Concession is what the ones with power do. If you want justice, someone has to concede - not because they’ve been forced into it, but because of that little bit of empathy that arises in the ones who have more, the ones with more power, the wealthier.”

In his Aug. 15 mass for the Feast of the Assumption in Daejeon, the Pope urged attendees to fight the “spirit of unbridled competition” and reject “inhumane economic models.” This was also a blunt criticism of the South Korean economic system and its focus on the “myth of growth.”

“When the Pope said we need to change from globalization of capital to globalization of solidarity, he was calling for both a spiritual change in the ones who exclude the poor as well as a change in national and international institutions,” said Jung Tae-in, director of the Corea Institute for New Society.

“What he meant is that we need reforms to international institutions and economic redistribution at the national level in a spirit of friendship,” Jung said.

Indeed, the pope did call for structural changes with his message that “to assist the poor is not enough,” which Jung contrasted with the administration’s recently renewed calls for deregulation and increased investment.

“If they really listen to what the pope said, they’ll need to consider how to redistribute things at the national level and proceed with an income-driven approach to growth,” he said.

The pope also issued a clear message on the divisions and antagonisms affecting the Korean peninsula.

“He said that if you can’t open the other person’s mind, you’re just talking to yourself,” said former Unification Minister and current Wonkwang University president Jeong Se-hyun. “That’s something the administration needs to take to heart. Listen to the address for Liberation Day - [President Park] ignored the North Korean position and made a unilateral proposal where she basically said, ‘Here it is if you want it.’ That’s talking to yourself.”

Another message from the pontiff emphasized commitment to the public good. “Go out into the world and knock on the door of other people’s hearts,” he said. It was a message for every member of society, but also a sharp rebuke against religion that has become an establishment itself.

“Simply put, I felt envious,” said Kim Jae-hwan, the self-identified Protestant director of the documentary “Quo Vadis?,” which criticized problems in South Korean Protestantism. “He showed with his own righteous behavior that the direction the church, and society in general, needs to be going in toward life, not money.”

“Lots of churches left Christ before people began leaving the church,” Kim added. “We need to be clear that those handful of churches that ignore the tears of the suffering and are driven by green are not churches at all.”

Before boarding his Korean Air Boeing 777 to go home on Aug. 18, the pope met with Prime Minister Chung Hong-won.

“I pray that God will continue to watch over the dignity of this country,” he said during the meeting.

“I hope that this artificial division moves toward an agreement, and that a peaceful reunification of South and North happens quickly,” he added. “This is a hope and a promise.”

Can the Pope’s one hundred-hour visit really change South Korea? Catholic University of Korea emeritus professor Ahn Byung-wook said past examples suggest a need for conscious effort.

“When the Sewol tragedy happened, people kept going on for over a month about how South Korean society was going to fundamentally change, but almost immediately you start hearing other voices,” he said. “We need to not forget this time. People from different areas of society need to take action in real ways. And I think the politicians and political parties need to be the major actors at the center of that.”

Seoul National University economics professor Lee Joon-koo echoed the message with a post on his homepage.

“I don’t expect the pope’s visit to change our society completely,” he wrote. “Never mind any kind of epiphany, those people are simply going come up with any excuses they can to justify themselves. But it’s a great comfort just to have him pointing out clearly where the right path lies.

"The pope is awesome!," he concluded.


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