DAEJEON, South Korea — Pope Francis called Friday for Catholics to combat the allure of materialism, an appeal that might be a hard sell in South Korea, a newly rich and hyper-competitive country.
Far from being considered an evil, the trappings of wealth are often linked here to the hard work, sacrifice and gritty persistence of generations who hustled their nation out of war, dictatorship and poverty 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?’ ”
Francis made the call during his first public Mass in Asia. He received a boisterous welcome from tens of thousands of young Asians gathered for a Catholic festival in the central city of Daejeon. During his homily, Francis urged the faithful to reject “inhuman” economic policies that disenfranchise the poor and “the spirit of unbridled competition which generates selfishness and strife.”
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. While his message has been met with skepticism among some conservatives in the U.S. who have branded him a Marxist, it has been welcomed in much of the developing world and even some South Koreans said Friday he 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 also been charmed by Francis’ simple and humble manner – and surprised that he hopped into a modest compact car after arriving at the airport instead of the big luxury rides favored by the South Korean elite.
Francis stressed his message again later Friday during a 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.
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 said.
A glimpse into the country’s complicated relationship with materialism can be seen in the Gangnam neighborhood that is the epicenter of Korean materialism.
South Korean rapper Pmade Gangnam world famous with his surprise 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 among many ordinary South Koreans, but there’s also an aspiration to achieve the same things – especially in the realm of in education, which Koreans see as the surest way to climb in a hyper-competitive 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, which can be partly seen in an April ferry sinking that left 304 people dead or missing, mostly high school students. Francis made sure that he reached out to victims of a disaster that has prompted widespread soul-searching over the nation’s neglect of safety as it rapidly developed.
Before Mass got under way, Francis met privately with about a dozen survivors of the ferry disaster and relatives of the dead. One of them, Lee Ho Jin, whose son was killed, asked the pope to baptize him, and Francis agreed to perform the ritual on Saturday, said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.