DAEJEON, South Korea » Pope Francis urged Catholic youth on Friday to renounce the materialism that afflicts much of Asian society today and reject "inhuman" economic systems that disenfranchise the poor, pressing his economic agenda in one of the region’s powerhouses where financial gain is a key barometer of success.
Francis received a boisterous welcome from tens of thousands of young Asians as he celebrated his first public Mass in South Korea, a country with a small but growing church that is seen by the Vatican as a model for the rest of the world.
Francis took a high-speed train from Seoul to the central city of Daejeon, where Catholic youths have been meeting for the Asian version of World Youth Day. In his homily, Francis urged the participants to be a source of renewal and hope for society.
"May they combat the allure of a materialism that stifles authentic spiritual and cultural values and the spirit of unbridled competition which generates selfishness and strife," Francis said in Italian that was translated into Korean. "May they also reject inhuman economic models which create new forms of poverty and marginalize workers."
His message will be a tough sell in South Korea, which has grown from the destruction and poverty of the Korean War of the 1950s into one of Asia’s top economies. Many though link success with ostentatious displays of status and wealth, with plastic surgery a booming business. Competition among the young, especially for places at elite schools, starts as early as pre-kindergarten and is fierce. The country has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.
Francis said that in such "outwardly affluent" societies, people often experience "inner sadness and emptiness," a despair that he said was akin to a cancer growing in society.
"Upon how many of our young people has this despair taken its toll!" he said.
Daejeon’s soccer stadium has a capacity of 50,000 and was nearly full hours before Francis arrived. Handkerchief-waving crowds led in chants of "Viva il papa!" welcomed him as his open-sided vehicle, with a simple canopy overhead, made its way slowly to the stadium and then inside.
Before Mass got under way, Francis met privately with about a dozen survivors of South Korea’s April ferry disaster and relatives of the dead who are demanding a government inquiry into the sinking. One of them, Lee Ho Jin, whose son was killed, asked the pope to baptize him, the Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said.
Francis agreed, and will baptize him Saturday morning at the Vatican’s embassy in Seoul, he said. Lee, who has been in catechism classes for two years, participated in a 21-day pilgrimage undertaken by many relatives of the victims, carrying a cross in honor of the slain children, Lombardi said.
Hwang Pillkyu, an attorney who is helping the ferry victims’ families, said they plan to give the pope the cross that family members carried during the pilgrimage, which went from Danwon high School where many of the victims were from to Jindo island, near where the ferry sank, and other places in South Korea.
In his final prayer, Francis reached out to the survivors and families with words of comfort: "May the Lord welcome the dead into his peace, console those who mourn and continue to sustain those who so generously came to the aid of their brothers and sisters," he said. "May this tragic event which has brought all Koreans together in grief confirm their commitment to work together in solidarity for the common good."
Most of the more than 300 people killed were high school students on a class trip. Their relatives are pushing lawmakers to set up an independent, transparent probe. The ruling party is opposed because it says a parliamentary committee doesn’t have the power to indict.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, has said Francis wouldn’t intervene in the issue but would merely offer comfort to the families. A banner outside the stadium featured a photo of the pope and read "Please wipe the tears of the Sewol families."
After Mass, Francis was to lunch with some of the youth festival participants and then visit an 18th century sanctuary where Korea’s first priest was raised.
Francis arrived in Seoul on Thursday and issued a plea for peace and unity on the war-divided peninsula. North Korea fired three projectiles into the sea just before he landed and another two soon after. On Friday, Pyongyang’s official news agency KCNA confirmed the rocket test and said it was conducted on the 69th anniversary of Korea’s independence from Japan. It made no mention of the pope’s visit.
AP writer Youkyung Lee contributed to this report.