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Pope's visit helps break Korea's 'negative cycle'

Francis inspires 'superstitious' young people

Pope's visit helps break Korea's 'negative cycle'

Crowds in Haemi greet Pope Francis during his papal visit. (Photo by Steve Finch/ 

Cristian Martini Grimaldi, Seoul

August 22, 2014

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As the pope concluded his recent visit to South Korea with a Mass of reconciliation at Myeongdong Cathedral, I was on the subway in Seoul, where seemingly everyone was fixated on their smartphones.

This is nothing new, especially during sporting events or other major events to which people can connect via live streaming. So it was for the Olympics, for the football World Cup – and, now, for Pope Francis’ first trip to Asia.

My point is not to draw a comparison between a sporting event and a pastoral one, but to appreciate the massive circulation potential of this papal visit, which reached far beyond those physically present at the events.

It speaks to the question of just how many of the young Koreans to whom this trip was dedicated were reached by it.

The casual observer might note that there did not appear to be large numbers of young people at the events at Daejeon, Solmoe, Gwanghwamun and Myeongdong.

But this is only part of the picture.

A Korean friend of mine, Hyekyung, a 23-year-old student and a Christian, conducted a small survey on the day of Francis’ departure. She asked 40 acquaintances, both Catholic and non-Catholic, if they had watched on TV or seen live one or more of the four major celebrations.

Out of the 40 persons, 31 responded. Almost a third of these young people had witnessed one or more of the major events, either live or on their screens. This is not insignificant.

Break the numbers down further and something even more remarkable emerges. Among the 31 respondents were 18 non-believers. Of these, six had witnessed at least one of the major events. That is, one out of three – again, a significant proportion.

On the other hand, of the 13 Catholics who responded, only three had witnessed one of the events. It may be a coincidence, but at a little less than a quarter, this is not far off the number of baptized Koreans who attend Sunday Mass in their own parish.

Of course, this small survey cannot be regarded as definitive. Yet somehow it reflects features that we already sense about the pope, and in particular about his mission to Korea. Among them, that he is able to appeal to agnostics and atheists as much, if not more, as to believers.

A Korean priest told me that it will be easier for Francis to inspire faith in non-believers than to encourage non-practicing Catholics to become “active” again. This appears to be true.

It is perhaps not a bad thing. It is becoming clearer that if the Church wishes to grow, it will do so not by proselytizing but through attraction; in this case a very personal attraction, inspired by a pontiff who is unique in his spontaneous manner and simple, direct language.

My friend Hyekyung, who was, among other things, responsible for the English television translations of papal homilies, reminded me of another point, as simple as it is significant: that the Koreans, more than being Confucians, are a very superstitious people.

"A friend of mine has had a number of problems this year because of a stalker,” she says. “She was very depressed, but instead of seeking out practical solutions she told me she was just going through a dark phase, a negative cycle, and that it would pass.”

This type of thinking is also very common when Koreans look at their own country.

“Various accidents on the Korean railway lines this year, plus the great tragedy of the Sewol ferry, have made people think Korea, too, is stuck in a negative cycle,” says Hyekyung. “The pope’s visit gives us hope that we can open a new, positive cycle for our country."

The pope has noted, with reference to a well-known biblical analogy, that it is more important to find one lost sheep than to care for the 99 who remain. This indeed seems to have been the great achievement of his trip to South Korea.

The young Korean non-believers have had the chance to see up close someone who for them is a true media star; who has appeared on the covers of Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and Time.

But unlike many other big international stars, the pope conveys a strong and positive message of hope, and knows how to choose clear and simple words to encourage them to never despair.

If they continue to have a superstitious attitude, and see the pope’s visit as having helped to terminate a negative cycle and inaugurate a new and positive one, that is a good thing.

And if the encounter also happened to stir in these young people a new spiritual curiosity, then this truly was a job well done.

Cristian Martini Grimaldi is a freelance journalist based in South Korea

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