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(News Focus) Papal visit offers comfort to S. Korea's broken-hearted

2014/08/18 17:44

By Park Sojung

SEOUL, Aug. 18 (Yonhap) -- Pope Francis' trip to South Korea is widely seen as a welcome reprieve for the country still reeling from the aftermath of April's deadly ferry sinking.

His five-day itinerary was packed with meetings with the country's marginalized -- not surprising for a pontiff who espouses building a "poor Church for the poor."

   Among the first people he greeted upon arriving on Thursday were four South Koreans, out of hundreds, who lost their loved ones in the ferry tragedy.

The ferry Sewol capsized off South Korea's southwestern coast on April 16, leaving more than 300 dead or missing. Most of them were high school students on a field trip, making the tragedy one of the country's worst peacetime disasters.

Pope Francis consoles one of the victims of South Korea's April ferry disaster before a Mass on Aug. 16, 2014, that beatified 124 Korean martyrs in Seoul. (Photo courtesy of the Committee for the Papal Visit to Korea)

Pope Francis consoles one of the victims of South Korea's April ferry disaster before a Mass on Aug. 16, 2014, that beatified 124 Korean martyrs in Seoul. (Photo courtesy of the Committee for the Papal Visit to Korea)

On Friday, the pontiff met privately with a dozen locals representing the Sewol victims and agreed to baptize one of them with his own papal name, Francis, which he did on Sunday behind closed doors.

Donning a yellow ribbon on his chest in solidarity with the victims, the pontiff stopped by a group of them seated at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul on Saturday, where a Mass beatifying Korean martyrs was held before an estimated 1 million people.

"A lot of the bereaved families were heartened by the pope's attention," said Kim Byeong-gwon, who represents the victims' families. "Throughout his stay here, he's shown us that he remembers (our tragedy)."

   Kim Young-oh, 37, who lost his daughter in the sinking, said he didn't expect the pope to be as attentive as he was.

"I knew he cared about us but didn't know it would be this much," said Kim, who has been on a hunger strike demanding an independent probe into the disaster. "From day one, he talked about us and cared for us. It was beyond my expectation."

   The victims of the Sewol tragedy, however, weren't the only ones graced by special papal attention.

On Saturday evening, the pope visited a center for the sick and disabled in Eumseong, 131 kilometers south of Seoul, and prayed for aborted babies at a memorial nearby.

On his last day in South Korea, hundreds of people "in need of peace and reconciliation" were invited to his final Mass at Seoul's Myeongdong Cathedral.

Among the attendees were seven Korean women who had been forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.

"They say, 'love the sinner, hate the sin,'" said Lee Yong-soo, one of the "comfort women" invited to the Mass. "I have a feeling saying prayers with this rosary (the pope has given me) may solve all my issues."

   Japan is accused of failing to offer a sincere apology for its wartime atrocities, including the sexual enslavement of 200,000 young women, mostly from Korea and China.

Pope Francis offers condolences to Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II at a Mass for peace and reconciliation in Seoul on Aug. 18, 2014. (Yonhap)

Pope Francis offers condolences to Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II at a Mass for peace and reconciliation in Seoul on Aug. 18, 2014. (Yonhap)

The papal visit is also expected to give a much-needed boost to the number of South Korea's Catholic faithful, which has dwindled to 1.5 percent last year from 3.2 percent in 1996, according to local Church figures.

"Because the pope shines a ray of light in the darkest of our times, I think many people, not just Catholics, will be touched by his presence," said Seol Shin-bok, 59, who traveled from Yongin, Gyeonggi Province, to see the pope, but only got to see him entering Myeongdong Cathedral.

A 23-year-old who only gave her surname, Kim, and identified herself as an atheist said she'd become more interested in spiritual healing than ever before.

"I've always had a positive image of Catholicism, but the pope's presence made it even more appealing," said Kim, who studies music at a Seoul university.

Kang U-il, head of the organizing committee of the papal visit, said the pontiff may have raised the bar for South Korea's leaders.

"More South Koreans may feel that our leaders should follow his example of serving the needy with such relentlessness," he said in the final briefing on Monday.

The pope's choice of South Korea as his first Asian destination has also cast a limelight on Korean martyrs who established the church on their home soil, well before the arrival of foreign missionaries.

"What has been a very profound spiritual aspect of (the pope's) visit has been the experience and reality of the martyrs in the (Korean) Church," said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi at a daily briefing on Sunday.

Leaders of South Korea's other major religions also said they were inspired by the Holy Father's visit, the first by a sitting pope in 25 years.

"The visit by Pope Francis consoled many, regardless of their beliefs," said Ven. Jaseung, who leads the Jogye Order, the largest Buddhist sect in the country. "His lessons to strive for a 'poor Church for the poor' apply not just to religious leaders but to leaders of all kinds."

   sojungpark@yna.co.kr

(END)