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In the heart of Asia

· Cardinal Parolin on the Pope’s visit to Korea ·

The following is a translation of the interview Cardinal Pietro Parolin gave the Vatican Television Center in collaboration with L’Osservatore Romano, on Monday morning, 11 August.

“I must go to Asia, it is important”, Pope Francis said to journalists at the end of his visit to Brazil. Now the Pope is heading to North Korea, 15 years after John Paul II visited India. What makes this visit so important?

I would say that this visit is important for three reasons: firstly, this is the Pope’s first visit to the Far East, a part of the world which is gaining an increasingly important role in global politics and the global economy. Secondly, the Pope is going there to address the entire continent, not just Korea. Of course Korea is his destination but he aims to address all the continent’s countries thanks to the celebration of Asian Youth Day, which will be taking place in Korea and be attended by the young people’s representatives from nearby nations. And the third aspect is the future. Young people represent the future, so the Pope will be addressing the future of this continent, the future of Asia. In my opinion, these are the three points that characterize this journey and also highlight its importance.

In his Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Asia, also in 1999, John Paul II wrote that “in the Third Christian Millennium a great harvest of faith will be reaped on this vast and vital continent”. Fifteen years later, has the hope already become a reality?

Looking a bit at the numbers, at the figures, we must recognize that the Gospel’s journey in Asia is not as rapid, as fast, as we had hoped and as we do hope. We all know that only one or two percent of the Asia population profess the Christian faith, and the Church exists in very different situations in various countries: in some, the situation is easier; in others, more difficult. But I think we must look beyond the numbers, the overall figures, and recognize that in Asia, despite the growing phenomena of secularization and materialism typical of today’s world and of all the continents, there is an intense desire for God, a deep thirst for spiritual values, and there is also great vitality in religions, which have shown they are capable of adapting and changing in the face of the situation in transition. To me these all seem to be positive signs, which go in the direction indicated by the words of St John Paul II, whom you quoted, in the sense that the Gospel, in fact, is proposed as a path toward fullness. Starting from these profound spiritual and religious aspirations, the Gospel is proposed as a fullness which is capable of responding to these aspirations and to these expectations.

Korea, once a mission destination, has become a land which sends out missionaries. Can the impact of Pope Francis’ journey broaden the horizons of this mission in Asia?

We almost find the initial freshness in this experience of the Korean Church, which from being evangelized becomes the Evangelist, from being the recipient of the Gospel message becomes its proclaimer, the witness to this same message. And it is a truly comforting situation, there are about a thousand Korean priests, men and women religious, lay people and missionaries throughout the world, in roughly 80 countries on the various continents. So it is a very consistent yet growing missionary situation. Pope Francis is going to promote, to reinforce, this movement which is already in progress within the Korean Church, and I think he will do so in a way that is appropriate for her, knowing that, from the very beginning of his pontificate, from his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, he has emphasized this missionary dimension of the Church, the Church which goes out, the Church that goes toward the existential and geographic peripheries, the Church that must take the joyous message of the Gospel to all. Returning to what Paul VI said in Evangelii Nuntiandi, let us also recall him on almost the eve of his beatification, namely, that the Church exists in order to evangelize. Thus one of the Pope’s clear messages will be just this, precisely in order to confirm and reinforce this movement.

At the heart of Francis’ visit will be the meeting with Asia’s youth, who, in this highly competitive society, often grow away from the Church as they seek excellence at school. What will the Pope’s message to them be?

We have to say that the Korean Church has always demonstrated great attention and great pastoral care with regard to young people. The message I think the Pope will impart to these young people is that they must become protagonists in the Church’s life. Their presence must therefore be active, participatory, co-operative and co-responsible. The Church needs young people. John Paul II reminded us of this and now Pope Francis reminds us too. So young people need to be protagonists in the Church and in the mission. Above all, young people are called to become Evangelizers to their peers, always keeping their evangelizing mission alive; this is the message the Pope will be taking to Korea. Of course, he will also urge young people not to be blinded by the ephemeral values of our societies and to find in Jesus the true answer to their questions and fears.

What testimony can the Korean martyrs, whom Pope Francis will be beatifying in Seoul, offer the young generations of Asian Catholics?

This is another reason why the Pope is going to Korea, to beatify the 124 Korean martyrs. I think it is important to highlight that there was only one priest in this group, all the others were lay people who had all kinds of professions, from the most humble to the most prestigious on the social scale. This echoes one of the characteristic features of the Korean Church, which is that it was born from the testimony and effort of the laity who managed to preserve and transmit the faith. I think this is the core message; that is, that in the Church we are all called to work together on this mission of proclaiming the Gospel and we are all called to holiness, a holiness which can be shown in many different ways but which must involve an effort on each one’s part. We are not Christians if this constant draw to holiness is not inside of us every day, this call to holiness in the form of a sincere, authentic and complete testimony, which can go as far as the gift of life in the case of those who have the grace to be called to martyrdom. This is the task the Pope will assign to these young people and to the whole Korean Church.

Korea can certainly represent the hopes and difficulties of the Asian continent, and Pope Francis will visit a rehabilitation centre for disabled people and pray in the “cemetery for aborted babies”. Was the great expansion of the “Asian tigers” unfortunately accompanied by the throwaway culture?

There is certainly an evaluation we can make, and it is here, once again, that the Church can say a word, she can offer a witness, the witness of charity. Charity has always been an “instrument”, let us use this word, to proclaim the Gospel, precisely attention to the least, attention to vulnerable people, attention to the poor, attention to the disadvantaged and to those who are placed on the margin of society has always been a feature of Christians and of the Church. And it seems to me that in Asian culture this may be brought to bear, that is, these two acts that the Pope will perform will also highlight this very approach, and highlight the missionary task of the Church through attention to the most needy. Thus charity can serve as a means to proclaim the Gospel, to proclaim the Gospel effectively in difficult situations, in situations of exclusion.

Economist Thomas Han, who was also the Ambassador of Korea to the Holy See, pointed out that Korea may be the only country in the world where the Catholic Church is growing hand in hand with economic development. Indeed, it has often been said that faith diminishes as financial wellbeing and materialism increase. How do you interpret this countertrend in Korean society?

It really is a countertrend, which in a certain sense, at least personally, astonishes me, because what we usually feel is a certain abandonment, a certain indifference, on the part of our technically and materially advanced societies. I would say that one interpretation could be, at least my reading of it, is that there is no culture, not even contemporary culture, which would be impermeable to the Gospel. Any culture, even the seemingly most refractory, has areas where the Gospel can be proclaimed, and these areas are those found deep in the human heart, when all is said and done. Man is always the same, whatever his situation, even when heavily conditioned by culture. However, the heart of man has its aspirations. Let us recall that St Augustine said that our heart is restless “until it finds rest in Thee”. And that there is no material situation that can satisfy this thirst of the heart. I would interpret it a bit this way even in these very advanced societies, evolved from a material point of view and from a technological point of view, in which however this profound aspiration persists in the heart which does not find an adequate response in material things nor in progress. And Korea offers us great hope in this sense; our societies that also live the same reality, that anticipated these realities can still offer paths.... It is up to us! The Church’s great challenge is to find these paths and follow them to the end so that the water of the Gospel can once more quench every persons’ heart.

Pope Francis will meet with survivors and relatives of the victims of the Sewol tragedy. Can the pastoral care of tenderness and closeness to the suffering also make its mark in Korea?

Yes, of course. We know that this dramatic, sorrowful event has caused much pain. It has opened so many wounds and fed such controversy in Korean society. The Pope wants to show that the method to soothe this pain and to try to heal these wounds, is just that of being close to the people. This is the clear sign: this closeness, which is the closeness of Jesus to all those who suffer, must be the Church’s closeness to all those who are suffering. Then this approach too is a very meaningful act of charity and of love towards the relatives of the victims of this tragedy.

The Pope will conclude his visit to Korea, which the bishops have described as “the last victim of the Cold War”, with a Mass for peace and reconciliation. Will this trip succeed in opening up new channels for dialogue between the leaders of the two Koreas and give hope to North Korea’s Catholics?

This has always been the Holy See’s great hope and it has worked hard to try to achieve this. Obviously, there is still a great deal of tension on the peninsula, and peace and reconciliation are needed. I think the Pope’s trip will also be a help in this sense; it will help to ensure continued solidarity towards the needy and to open areas for communication and dialogue, to the extent that it is able. Because in my view — and the Pope has stressed this conviction on a number of occasions — that only through communication and dialogue can existing problems be resolved, and that the means for communication and dialogue can always be found as long as there is willingness on everyone’s part.

Alessandro Di Bussolo

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