Pope Francis once again lived up to his dual role during his five-day visit to South Korea. An altogether unpretentious, warm-hearted pastor, he is close to the desperate, the people with no hope or consolation. At the same time, as a socially critical advocate, he opposes political systems that put material gain and business ahead of people. His visit gave him sufficient leeway to emphasize both approaches.
Francis also emphatically urged South Korea's estimated 5.5 million Catholic Christians to play a stronger role in society. It's quite unusual that membership in the church there has increased steadily over the decades. Some observers may use such figures to point a finger at tepid faith in the Catholic Church in Germany and in Europe, or even to predict its death. Rome takes a more pragmatic view. On its website, the Vatican indicates that while the number of believers is clearly on the rise in South Korea, visiting Sunday mass is becoming less important.
A message for Asia
Francis, however, wasn't merely visiting South Korea - he was visiting Asia.
With an eye on China, Vietnam and North Korea - states that persecute Christians to a greater or lesser degree and don't have diplomatic relations with the Holy See - he appealed for the freedom of religion and reconciliation. Even under his predecessor Benedict XVI, Vatican diplomats patiently and inconspicuously worked toward a more intensive dialogue with China. Francis clearly wants to continue with those efforts.
The commercially up and coming Far East is a growth market for the Catholic Church - a market papal travel diplomacy has ignored for too long. Perhaps the pope from Argentina sees similarities to his native continent. For decades, Jorge Mario Bergoglio experienced a Latin America marked by political and military dictatorships as well as blatant social injustice. Some things in Asia may have rung a bell.
In South Korea with its "tiger economy," he focused on taking the losers' perspective, within the political as well the economic system. He spoke of "inhuman economic models" that lead to poverty and segregation.
Francis is by no means a communist, but he repeatedly reminds the leading industrialized nations that the economy is meant to be for the good of the people, not vice versa. In a country that puts economic success above social solidarity within families, that means rejecting materialism and refusing a spirit of boundless competition.
Future travel plans
A glance at the South American pope's future travel plans shows a clear direction. In five months, the pontiff plans to set off for Asia once again: his longest foreign trip ever is scheduled to take him to the Philippines and Sri Lanka, including regions hard-hit by the tsunami in 2004. Mainly, however, he is visiting countries with massive structural poverty. Almost demonstrative pastoral closeness to people on the fringes of society, paired with prophetically fierce criticism of the beneficiaries of the present system - blasted by Francis as "inhuman": that is the face of Francis' church.
The papal travel plans don't leave Europe out completely, but the next destination is in line with the general concept.
In mid-September the Pope visits Europe's poorhouse Albania for a day. There, too, people are bound to view the pope more as a caring pastor than as a distant church leader. But his words will be directed at prosperous Europe - where they might just go unheard.
We can already look forward to Pope Francis' planned visit to the US in September 2015. Regard for the pope from the south has been replaced in some sectors of the political system by irritation over a man from far away. In Washington and New York, Francis is not likely to phrase his words any less decisively than in Seoul or Daejeon.