Pope Francis stresses peace as he steps foot into South Korea

This story appears in the Francis in Korea feature series. View the full series.
Pope Francis walks with South Korean President Park Geun-hye after landing Thursday in Seoul. (CNS/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis walks with South Korean President Park Geun-hye after landing Thursday in Seoul. (CNS/Paul Haring)

by Thomas C. Fox

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Pope Francis' first words as he stepped off his Alitalia flight from Rome were to the South Korean president, who was waiting for him at the foot of the stairs.

"I came here thinking of peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula," Pope Francis said to Park Geun-hye, who greeted him Thursday morning at a military airport south of this capital city.

Also waiting to greet the pontiff were families of the young people who died in the April 16 Korean ferry sinking disaster. The sinking of the Sewol has outraged the nation but has yet to move the Park government to call for an independent investigation, as families are demanding.

Within minutes of stepping on South Korean soil, the free-minded Francis raised Korean eyebrows as he stepped into a black Kia Soul hatchback, not the usual choice of transportation for visiting dignitaries.

As much as a society in Asia, South Korea has rushed into and embraced the consumer era, with material goods having become for many the measure of human worth. His car, however, stood out against the considerably larger black sedans that joined the papal convoy to the capital.

Francis' five-day visit here will be filled with ceremonies that, on the surface, do not seem to allow much time for mingling with the people or his characteristic informalities. So gestures that make a point become all the more important.

The pope's five-day visit is also seen as the Catholic church placing new emphasis on its growing following in South Korea and other parts of Asia, with the 77-year-old pontiff scheduled to travel to Sri Lanka and the Philippines next year.

After a short rest, Francis appeared with Park in an opening ceremony in front of about 200 government officials. Each head of state spoke for about 10 minutes.

Introducing the pope before his speech, Park said the Korean War "still casts a shadow" over Korea, "dividing not only the country but so many families."

Tensions with communist North Korea have risen markedly in recent years, especially over Pyongyang's development of nuclear arms. Less than an hour before the pope's plane landed in Seoul, North Korea fired three short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan in the latest of a large number of missile tests it began launching in March.

Pyongyang had already refused the church's request to send a delegation of Catholics to South Korea for the pope's visit.

Francis, speaking English in public for the first time as pope, used the occasion to talk about the need for peace on the peninsula, spelling out that there is a connection between peace and justice.

"It is especially important for us to reflect on the need to give our young people the gift of peace," Francis said. "This appeal has all the more resonance here in Korea, a land which has long suffered because of a lack of peace."

He continued: "Korea's quest for peace is a cause close to our hearts, for it affects the stability of the entire area and indeed of our whole war-weary world." 

"Peace is not simply the absence of war, but the work of justice. And justice, as a virtue, calls for the discipline of forbearance; it demands that we not forget past injustices, but overcome them through forgiveness, tolerance and cooperation. It demands the willingness to discern and attain mutually beneficial goals, building foundations of mutual respect, understanding and reconciliation. May all of us dedicate these days to peace, to praying for it and deepening our resolve to achieve it."

A short time later, at a welcoming ceremony by the Korean bishops, Bishop Peter Kang U-il, chairman of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea, also stressed the need for peacemaking and justice-building.

"Over the last half century, the Korean society has been through rapid industrialization, democratization and evangelization that even surprised the other developing countries," he said. "But this rapid transformation has also led to many considerable side effects and caused incurable wounds. Across the country with the neoliberal economic system got more and more polarization without the ripple effect, despite having stepped wealth. People suffer a lot. Because of the anxiety of work and lack of social security, you can get even suicide. It is true that the church has grown a lot in a short time, but if we reflect seriously on ourselves, not few people would doubt if we built a truly evangelical community."

Thursday afternoon, the president welcomed the pope to the Blue House, named for the color of the tiles on its roof, where the two leaders reviewed an honor guard before meeting in private with a few advisers. In the customary exchange of gifts, Pope Francis presented Park with a panoramic map of Rome, one of only 300 copies engraved and printed by hand to mark the jubilee year 2000.

Park gave the pope a piece of embroidered fabric as an example of traditional Korean craftsmanship.

Francis is the first pope to visit South Korea since Pope John Paul II in 1989.

There are presently an estimated 5.4 million Catholics in South Korea, around 11 percent of the population, a steep increase from around 1.3 million in 1980.

Francis will begin his first full day of activities with a visit Friday to Daejeon, where he will spend time with young Koreans participating in the sixth annual Asian Youth Day. The next day, he will beatify 124 martyrs in a ceremony expected to draw hundreds of thousands to downtown Seoul.

The Korean media has been giving his trip wide coverage. An editorial in the Thursday morning Korean Herald said: "When Pope Francis arrives in Korea ... he will find a nation that is thirsting for comfort, a caring touch and words of wisdom from a leader known for walking with his flock."

From the papal plane on his way to South Korea, Francis dispatched a telegram to China President Xi Jinping: "I extend the best wishes to your excellency and your fellow citizens, and I invoke the divine blessings of peace and well-being upon the nation," he wrote.

The pope traditionally sends a telegram to the governments of the countries he flies over. The China message is viewed as special: The last time a pope traveled to East Asia was when John Paul II flew to the Philippines in 1995. At that time, Chinese authorities denied permission for the pope to fly over their territory, forcing the papal plane into a long detour.

[Thomas C. Fox is NCR publisher. His email address is tfox@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NCRTomFox. Catholic News Service contributed to this report.]

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