Pope Francis wrapped up his first trip to Asia on Monday by challenging Koreans —from the North and the South — to reject the "mindset of suspicion and confrontation" that clouds their relations and find new ways to forge peace on the war-divided peninsula.
Before boarding a plane back to Rome, the pope held a Mass of reconciliation at Seoul's main cathedral, attended by South Korean President Park Geun-hye as well as some North Korean defectors. It was the final event of a five-day trip that confirmed the importance of Asia for this papacy and for the Catholic Church as a whole, given the church is young and growing here whereas it is withering in traditionally Christian lands in Europe.
Francis' plea for peace came as the United States and South Korea started a joint military drill that North Korea warned would result in a "merciless pre-emptive strike" against the allies.
In a poignant moment at the start of the Mass on Monday, Francis bent down and greeted seven women, many sitting in wheelchairs, who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. One gave him a pin of a butterfly — a symbol of these "comfort women's" plight — which he immediately pinned to his vestments and wore throughout the Mass.
Francis said in his homily that reconciliation can be brought about only by forgiveness, even if it seems "impossible, impractical and even at times repugnant."
"Let us pray, then, for the emergence of new opportunities for dialogue, encounter and the resolution of differences, for continued generosity in providing humanitarian assistance to those in need, and for an ever greater recognition that all Koreans are brothers and sisters, members of one family, one people," he said.
During his trip the pope reached out to China, North Korea and a host of other countries that have no relations with the Holy See.
The pope will visit the Philippines in January, along with Sri Lanka. In Seoul on Monday, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the archbishop of Manila, said Francis is offering "a friendly hand to the other countries, and assuring the countries we are not here for any worldly ambition, we are not here as conquerors, we are here as brothers and sisters."
Francis laid out these themes from the start of his visit, which was clouded by the firing of five rockets from Pyongyang into the sea. North Korea later said the test firings had nothing to do with Francis' arrival but rather commemorated the 69th anniversary of Korea's independence from Japanese occupation.
The U.S.-South Korean military exercises starting Monday and involving tens of thousands of troops are described by the allies as routine and defensive, but Pyongyang sees them as invasion preparation. A spokesman for the North Korean army's general staff said in a statement Sunday carried by state media that a "most powerful and advanced merciless pre-emptive strike will start any time chosen by us."
Such rhetoric is typical from the North and direct strikes by Pyongyang are rare, although attacks blamed on the North in 2010 killed 50 South Koreans.
Before the Mass, Seoul Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung dedicated a "crown of thorns" to the pope made from barbed wire taken from the heavily fortified demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas. "Ut unum sint" reads the inscription "That they may be one" — a phrase usually invoked when praying for unity among Catholics, Orthodox and other Christians but given an entirely new meaning in the Korean context.
In his homily, Francis said the Korean people knew well the pain of division and conflict and urged them to reflect on how they individually and as a people could work to reconcile.
He challenged them to "firmly reject a mindset shaped by suspicion, confrontation and competition, and instead to shape a culture formed by the teaching of the Gospel and the noblest traditional values of the Korean people."
When he was a young Jesuit, the Argentine-born Francis had wanted to be a missionary in Asia but was kept home because of poor health. He used his trip to South Korea to rally young Asians in particular to take up the missionary call to spread the faith.
He also used the trip to console Koreans: He met on several occasions with relatives of victims of the Sewol ferry sinking, in which 300 people were killed in April. Throughout his trip, he wore a yellow pin on his cassock that was given to him by the families.
On Monday, he received the butterfly pin from Kim Bok-dong, one of the "comfort women" who attended his Mass. These elderly South Koreans, many of whom regularly appear at rallies and other high-profile events, are looking for greater global attention as they push Japan for a new apology and compensation.
In an interview with The Associated Press before the Mass, another one of the women, Lee Yong-soo, who often speaks to the media, said she hoped the meeting would provide some solace for the pain she and others still feel more than seven decades after they were violated.
AP writer Foster Klug and video editor Kiko Rosario contributed to this story from Seoul.
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