SEOUL/KKOTTONGNAE, SOUTH KOREA – Pope Francis’ appeal in South Korea for Catholics to combat the allure of materialism might be a hard sell in the newly rich and hypercompetitive country.
Far from being considered an evil, the trappings of wealth are often linked there to the hard work, sacrifice and gritty persistence of generations who hustled their nation out of war, dictatorship and poverty and into an Asian powerhouse.
“I don’t want to knock successful people off their pedestal just because they have a lot of money,” said Kim Eui-kyun, a 61-year-old from Seoul who described himself as a lapsed Catholic. “If someone has made a fortune for himself, fair and square, and has a lot of money, I don’t think that’s something to be condemned. I look up to them, actually, and I wonder, ‘What did I do wrong?’ ”
During his first public Mass in Asia on Friday, Francis, addressing tens of thousands of young Asians gathered for a Catholic festival in the central city of Daejeon, urged them to reject “inhuman” economic policies that disenfranchise the poor and “the spirit of unbridled competition which generates selfishness and strife.”
The following day he reiterated the message, issuing a clear warning to Roman Catholic clergy that those who profess poverty while living rich material lives were hypocrites who hurt the image and mission of the church. While celebrating a huge open-air Mass in the center of Seoul, Francis denounced the growing gap between the haves and have-nots, urging people in affluent societies to listen to “the cry of the poor” among them.
And he returned to the theme during a later meeting with some 6,000 young Catholics from 23 nations gathered in the sanctuary town of Solmoe, where Korea’s first Catholic priest was born. “We see signs of an idolatry of wealth, power and pleasure, which come at a high cost to human lives,” he said.
It’s a theme he has raised frequently during his pontificate, railing against the “idolatry of money” and the excesses of capitalism that leave the poorest even further on the margins of society. Last year, in the first major written work of his papacy, Francis attacked unfettered capitalism as “a new tyranny,” urging global leaders to fight poverty and growing inequality.
While his message has been met with skepticism among some conservatives in the United States who have branded him a Marxist, it has been welcomed in much of the developing world. But after Friday’s public Mass, some South Koreans acknowledged the pope had a point.
“We are living in the age of limitless competition. But are we truly achieving happiness?” asked Chang Seouk-kyung, a 57-year-old youth counselor. “If such a message is given by someone as powerful and revered as the pope, it will help people wake up, stop and look around them.”
South Koreans have been charmed by Francis’ simple and humble manner, and surprised that he hopped into a modest compact Kia car after arriving at the airport instead of the big luxury rides favored by the South Korean elite.
Many South Koreans, however, are proud of the national doggedness that has lifted the country from the destruction of the Korean War in the 1950s into Asia’s fourth-biggest economy.
Competition is a fact of life in a crowded country surrounded by sometimes hostile neighbors, and those who succeed are often lionized. The flip-side, of course, is stress, misery and the rich world’s highest suicide rate.
Francis referred to the toll such competition can cause, saying it can lead to an emptiness and despair that grows “like a cancer” in society. “Upon how many of our young has this despair taken its toll?” he asked South Koreans.
A glimpse into the country’s complicated relationship with materialism can be seen in the Gangnam neighborhood south of Seoul’s Han River, the epicenter of Korean materialism made world famous by local rapper Psy with his surprise smash hit video.
Luxury cars, clothes, jewelry and a uniform concept of beauty that often comes from a surgeon’s knife are glorified in the neighborhood. Many of the residents became rich almost overnight when a real estate investment frenzy in the early 2000s caused land prices to skyrocket.
There’s envy toward Gangnam residents among many less well-off South Koreans, but there’s also an aspiration to achieve the same things, especially in the realm of education, which is seen as the surest way to rise in a hypercompetitive society. The students of Gangnam, whose parents shell out big money for prestigious private tutoring and prep schools, are reportedly much more likely to be selected for the country’s most prestigious university than students from less affluent areas.
“That reflects what materialism can do,” Kim, the Seoul resident, said. “Kids can get a better education, and they then have a better edge.”
But the breakneck push by South Koreans to modernize has a dark side, and while there’s pride of local industrial titans that rival the best companies in the world, the country also has a history of disregard for basic safety practices.
This can be partly seen in April’s Sewol ferry sinking that left 304 people dead or missing, mostly high school students. The tragedy exposed regulatory failures that appear to have allowed the Sewol to sail toward the southern resort island of Jeju with far more cargo than it could safely carry.
Francis made sure that he reached out to victims of the disaster, which has prompted widespread soul-searching over an ingrained culture of neglecting safety.
Before the open-air Mass got under way in Seoul on Saturday, Francis met privately with about a dozen survivors of the ferry disaster and relatives of the dead. They presented him with a tiny yellow ribbon, a symbol of support for the ferry victims. The pope wore it on his robe during the Mass.