Editorial — The pope’s eternal optimism

Pope Francis keeps doing remarkable things, and his recent trip to South Korea is just the latest example.

Not only did he lift the spirits of that nation’s often-overlooked and sometimes persecuted Christians, he dared to mention reunification of the divided Korean peninsula, giving hope — however faint it might be — that some day there will be just one Korea and not an artificially-constructed two.

In fact, a remarkably poignant symbol was present outside the cathedral doors where the pope was holding his final Mass in Seoul. It was a crown of “thorns” made from the barbed-wire that stretches along the fortified border that separates the north and the south.

Inside the Myongdong Cathedral on Aug. 18, the pope in his homily asked for the Korean people to “believe that forgiveness is the door which leads to reconciliation.”

Pope Francis knows that is a hard sell, though we all realize it is a theological verity. Before enemies can ever reconcile, they must be willing to forgive, if not forget.

Before the Mass, which was closed to the public, the pope met with seven “comfort women,” women who were forced into prostitution by the Japanese during and even prior to World War II. That was just one of the many wrongs done to Koreans throughout history.

Not only do the Koreans in the south need to reach out with an olive branch to North Korea — one of the strangest, most belligerent and poorest countries on the face of the earth — the pope said the South Koreans also have work to do for their own misdeeds.

Even before the Koreans were divided, they — like other nations in Asia — frequently persecuted Christians. In fact, they were especially harsh toward Catholics — there is even a time called the “Catholic Persecution of 1866,” when 8,000 Catholics were slaughtered.

North Korea is an enigma to most of the world.

Its people believe its most recent ruler, Kim Jong-un, invented the hamburger, and that his birthday is celebrated throughout the world. Of course, they also believed that their ruler’s father, Kim Jong-il, shot 38 under par the first time he ever played golf. (The round is said, by North Korean officials, to have included 11 holes-in-one that day.)

The poor and often-starving people of North Korea are told that Kim Jong-il once wrote 1,500 books in three years, and while doing that, produced six full operas on the side. He once promised his people that he would forever end famine in his country by creating giant rabbits.

While all of this craziness is mildly amusing, what the world does know about North Korea is anything but comical. The nation possesses little in the way of health care for its people, choosing instead to devote much of its financial resources to creating an atomic bomb. It’s a bomb which North Korean leaders have promised, time and time again, to release on the south if a delivery system is ever perfected.

As horrible as this nation’s history has been on both sides of the 38th parallel, Pope Francis, with his ever-present gentle countenance and his seemingly ubiquitous smile, still manages to see hope. If people will but turn to the Lord, he said, they will see ways to overcome the ills and dangers their society has faced seemingly forever.

But Pope Francis is not only optimistic, he is a pope who challenges people to veracity and to generosity as well as forgiveness.

In fact, according to the Catholic News Service (CNS), the pope said the need for reconciliation lay not only between South Korea and communist North Korea, nations divided since the Korean War ended in 1953, but within South Korea itself. In that nation, he noted, prosperity has brought increasing inequality. As in the United States, in South Korea the gap between the haves and have-nots grows ever larger.

The pope has noticed, and he asked Koreans, as he has asked others throughout the world, to “show evangelical concern for the less fortunate, the marginalized, those without work and those who do not share in the prosperity of the many.”

“I ask you to bear convincing witness to Christ’s message of forgiveness in your homes, in your communities and at every level of national life,” he said during the Aug. 18 Mass. “Thus our prayers for peace and reconciliation will rise to God from ever more pure hearts and, by his gracious gift, obtain that precious good for which we all long.”

In addition to the “comfort women,” others attending the Mass included North Korean defectors, people whose families were kidnapped and taken to North Korea, and a dozen clerics from various faiths, according to the Catholic News Service.

Before the Mass Pope Francis met with Buddhist, Orthodox, Lutheran and other Protestant leaders, and he asked them to pray for him. “I believe that we have to walk together with other brothers and sisters in the presence of God,” he told them. “And so I am sincerely grateful for all the leaders of various religions. It is a path that we walk together.”

The last thing the pope said before leaving South Korea was a request many people of the world have heard before.

He said: “Please pray for me.”

Glenn Rutherford
Record Editor

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