August 22nd, 2014
The Papal visit to Korea (August 13th-18th, 2014) was his first trip to Asia and many commentators have already highlighted different geo-political aspects of it. Asia is one of the most promising regions in the world for the Roman Catholic in terms of potential growth. This is the reason why Pope Francis will visit Sri Lanka and the Philippines in January of 2015. Asia is inevitably related to China, where there is an on-going diplomatic challenge for the Vatican and its prudent attempt to deal with the Chinese government and the unsettled situation of Christian churches there. This is why Francis extensively spoke on the theme of “dialogue” and the fact that Christians in no way intend to “invade” anyone or any place. He was in Korea but certainly had China in the back of his mind and wanted to send a message there as well. Korea itself is a divided nation and the Pope addressed the painful memories and the reality of the separation between North and South Korea. On a more symbolic level, Asia is also very evocative for Jesuits in general. Five centuries ago Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) was the first Jesuit to go to China, and so the Jesuit Pope also feels the Asian attraction that is typical of many Jesuits.
Geo-political considerations aside, there were two main spiritual emphases of the visit: the usual Marian framework of Pope Francis and the elaboration of his missional view as far as the discipline of dialogue is concerned. This File concentrates on the first item while another one will deal with the second.
Mary, Mother of Korea
The Papal visit coincided with the Asian Youth Day but most importantly with the solemn celebration of the assumption of Mary, body and soul, into the glory of heaven (August 15th). This Marian dogma was promulgated in 1950 and fits very well the overall spirituality of Pope Francis. In his homily during the celebration he invited the Korean audience “to contemplate Mary enthroned in glory beside her divine Son”. He called Mary “Mother of the Church in Korea” asking her help “to be faithful to the royal freedom we received on the day of our Baptism”. The queenly glory of Mary was coupled with the motherhood of Mary for the whole nation of Korea. Although the Bible teaches that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1), it was Mary that was presented to the faithful as an ever ready helper on the spiritual journey.
In praising Mary, the Pope went on to say that “In her, all God’s promises have been proved trustworthy”. Actually, the Bible says that “all the promises of God find their Yes in Him”, i.e. in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20). This is an example of how the logic of Catholic Mariology works its way through: it takes what belongs to Christ and extends it to his mother, although the Bible does not prescribe nor does it allow such an extension to take place.
The final invocation was also telling: “And now, together, let us entrust your Churches, and the continent of Asia, to Our Lady, so that as our Mother she may teach us what only a mother can teach: who you are, what your name is, and how you get along with others in life. Let us all pray to Our Lady”. Again, the motherhood of Mary was strongly emphasized to the point of attributing the discovery of our identity to her instead of Christ in whom we are saved and through whom we have received a new name. In so doing Mary joins Christ with the risk of taking his place.
Obtaining the Grace of Perseverance?
A final comment on the Mariology of the Papal visit is in order. During the Mass for the beatification of 124 Korean martyrs (August 16th), Francis ended his homily with these words: “May the prayers of all the Korean martyrs, in union with those of Our Lady, Mother of the Church, obtain for us the grace of perseverance in faith and in every good work, holiness and purity of heart, and apostolic zeal in bearing witness to Jesus in this beloved country, throughout Asia, and to the ends of the earth”. The idea is that the prayers of those whom the Church proclaims to be blessed “obtain for us the grace of perseverance”. Perseverance seems to be a human “work” that is obtainable through the efforts of the living and the dead.
In returning to Rome, after the long flight from Korea, Pope Francis stopped on his way to the Vatican at the basilica of Saint Mary Major, the largest Marian church in Rome, to thank Mary for the successful results of his trip to Asia. Saint Mary Major was the first church the Pope ever visited after becoming Pope and the dedication of his pontificate to Mary was the first official act of his reign. This church and what it represents is very dear to the him. The point is that Francis’ seemingly biblical language and “evangelical” attitude is always thought of and lived out in a thoroughly Marian framework, in both Rome and Korea alike.