South Korea is hardly a common summer destination.
But Pope Francis is not a common man, and by now, we’ve come to expect — even eagerly anticipate — his uncommon approach. So, what did the “Francis Factor” look like on Korean soil?
It looked like peace and reconciliation in the face of tense division. It looked like simple humility in the face of wealth and prestige. It looked like solidarity, human dignity and, perhaps most importantly, dialogue. It looked like an elderly Argentinean man dressed in white, driving about in a Kia, greeting people, encouraging them, comforting them and mourning with them when they were in pain.
Simply stepping foot on Korean soil reaffirmed the pope’s commitment to go to the margins, to encounter those who often go overlooked. As only the third pope to visit Asia and the second to visit Korea (St. John Paul II visited in 1984), Francis arguably turned international expectations on their head. Catholics, at 10.9 percent of the population, are well in the minority, and Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, did not visit South Korea, despite at least six official invitations. South Korea is likely not the first country that comes to mind when thinking “global Catholicism.”
If South Korea is on the margins of the global church, then the pope visited those marginalized at the margins.
There were the children of Kkottongnae (“Flower Village”), the hilltop community that is home to more than 50 children with physical or mental disabilities, with whom Francis laughed, prayed, and shared quiet words. To a society that often views these individuals as burdens or causes of shame, the pope showed compassion, love, and presence. These were children of God with whom the pontiff wished to spend personal time.
Those were not the only children for whom the pope wished to pray. In Kkottongnae, Francis stopped to pray at a memorial for aborted children. Both stops put on full display Pope Francis’ concern for the marginalized, the forgotten, and those with no voice.
But his ministry went beyond concern, to action — the pope stood with those who were grieving. He lived solidarity. He met with more than 30 individuals who lost loved ones in the Se-Wol ferry accident in April. He said it was a “great national disaster.” He wore a yellow-ribbon pin — a symbol of the 300 people who drowned — to commemorate the lives lost.
The pope’s own words aboard the flight leaving Korea illustrate his commitment: “I took [the pin] out of solidarity with them, and after half a day, somebody came up to me and said, ‘You should take it off; you need to be neutral.’ I answer this way: ‘Listen, with human pain you can’t be neutral.'”
Francis had words to share regarding peace, too. In the shadow of a nuclear threat from North Korea and with tensions on the peninsula ever increasing, the pope reminded the world, “Peace can be won through quiet listening and dialogue, rather than by mutual recrimination, fruitless criticism, and displays of force.”
This idea of quiet listening, of dialogue, is essential to the pope’s trip. In a talk given to 70 bishops from 36 Asian countries, Francis reminded us all that dialogue is built not only on one’s own understanding of self, but also on a deep understanding of the other — on empathy.
“We cannot engage in real dialogue unless we are conscious of our own [Christian] identity,” he said. “Nor can there be authentic dialogue unless we are capable of opening our minds and hearts, in empathy and sincere receptivity, to those with whom we speak.”
Showing his appreciation for the rich — and diverse — cultural heritage of the Asian continent, Francis called his brother bishops to remember that “the Church is called to be versatile and creative in her witness to the Gospel through dialogue and openness to all.”
The pontiff’s perspective on open dialogue both extended an olive branch to those nations with which the Holy See does not yet have diplomatic relations — China, North Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, and Brunei — as well as challenged all people of faith to enter into deeper, more meaningful conversations with one another.
In an ecumenical gathering held on the final day of the pope’s visit, Francis met with leaders of varying Christian churches in Korea, as well as leaders of other religious traditions.
“We must continue walking together, walking with God, and going forward together,” Francis said to those religious leaders gathered with him. “Pray for me.”
What the pope did not say was ”but,” “unless,” or “until” — there were no qualifiers. Francis desires to walk with those who see the world from a different point of view than he, period. At the same time, Francis did not — and does not — grow tired of reiterating the importance of a true Christian identity, and one that the world can see.
Perhaps this is a paradox: embracing true dialogue with other faiths, while bolstering a Christian identity. And yet, Francis is hardly phased. Time and again he pointed to the history of the 124 newly beatified Korean martyrs, reminding all those he encountered that Christianity came to Korea not through missionaries, but through intellectual curiosity, through the people’s own searching. Proselytism is not the way.
What does Francis’ pilgrimage to Korea mean to us? Peace, mercy, solidarity — all these things, yes. But the two words that come foremost to mind are identity and empathy: loving my neighbor as myself, understanding my neighbor as myself and, maybe, recognizing that we all live on the same cul-de-sac and would do well to build up the world together.