Pope Francis’s Wakeup Call in Korea
“ASIAN YOUTH, WAKE UP!”
Pope Francis rarely gives speeches in English (like Asian youth, he is worried his English is too poor!) but he did for us in Korea and the above was the exhortation that he wanted to stick in our minds. For great reason.
But first let’s rewind a bit: I spent the weekend in Seoul to attend Masses Pope Francis said there. They were amazing. Most attendees came from countries where there are relatively few Catholics, so it was a joyful time for everyone to celebrate their shared faith, not just explain it, and make new friends from all over the place. There were spontaneous songs and dances all around, including some by a troupe of indigenous people from Hualien, Taiwan in traditional garb, and people from different countries so high they were jumping into each other’s pictures to say hello (so now our group is in the group photo for a big Korean seminary.) Many non-Catholics came to be a part of it all as well, and they were welcomed.
I saw the Pope with my own eyes thrice. The first time was as he was driven to the Seosumun shrine just outside Seoul’s old city walls to commemorate 124 martyrs who were killed there (echoing St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome). After that ceremony, he drove to the central plaza of Seoul to beatify the martyrs at a Mass with 800,000 attendees, and I followed him there on foot. We who were too far behind all watched the proceedings (Latin Mass, Korean subtitles) on giant Samsung LCDs mounted around the square.
At Seoul the police presence was extremely heavy, as if they thought we had all come to protest him: it seemed clear the Force’s methods and traditions had not significantly changed since the rule of the dictator Park Chung Hee. However, I was able to get much closer the next day, in a distant castle where thousands of Catholics had been killed over the course of a century of persecution.
He passed by on the Popemobile on a path 10-15 feet in front of me at the Asian Youth Day closing Mass for 40,000 people at Haemi Fortress. Each time he blessed us all (looking past cameraphones to people’s faces) and each time he was warm. As he approached youth would run toward the car yelling “Papa, Papa!” (He also said an Asian Youth Day Mass in a packed World Cup soccer stadium in Daejeon on Korean Liberation Day. He traveled there by high speed rail and only after the train got going did the conductor tell the hundreds of other passengers they were sharing a ride with the Pope!)
But the amazing thing about his trip is that his small-scale events had an even larger social impact than the aforementioned large-scale ones. When he wasn’t at Mass praying and blessing, he was meeting and a long lineup of the marginalized–families of children killed in the April ferry disaster, women forced into sex slavery during World War II, the elderly, disabled, and sick–and giving them love and concern. He spoke about social problems close to home like youth suicide–old as he is youth relate to him because he knows what they’re worried about. He met the President of Korea as well, but mostly the pontiff was with the least of our brothers, bringing journalists along with him to get them in the headlines, and saying loud and clear whom he wanted to receive more attention.
Korea is getting richer and richer and the Pope came and spoke about emerging problems people had started to feel and to tell them to do something about it, the way their forefathers risked their lives for faith. “Do not be afraid to bring the wisdom of faith to every aspect of social life,” he said. He also urged us to discern “what is incompatible with your Catholic faith … and what aspects of contemporary culture are sinful, corrupt and lead to death” and instructed us to look out for the elderly, poor, and sick.
Some people don’t want to get too involved in society or in politics, which is the structuring of society. They just want to live their lives. However, I’ve often thought, of late, that in free societies the people who can most afford to do this are those who haven’t yet felt politics and society crushing them. In other words, politics is abstraction for the fortunate, but it’s urgent for the unfortunate.
I think Francis in telling us to wake up was saying anyone who can afford to come out and see him can also afford to act. And I pray we all do! Perhaps I’m paranoid but my reading of social trends tells me that not only is there more than enough for Christians to do for others; there are also vises tightening on everyone, and we need to recognize them for what they are. Youth, wake up, and don’t despair. The Cross has the same power over death as ever.