Braving the freezing weather, thousands of people gathered to see the funeral Mass of the late cardinal wave their hands as the hearse bearing Cardinal Stephen leaves Myeongdong Cathedral, Friday. / Yonhap
By Park Si-soo
Early Friday morning, tens of thousands of people lined up around Myeongdong Cathedral in central Seoul to pay their last respects to the late Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, who passed away Monday.
Seoul was covered with yellow dust blown from the east coast of China, but nobody in the crowd complained or regretted spending hours on the street for a seconds-long meeting with the nation's first cardinal.
The cathedral said more than 400,000 people had paid homage to Kim over the past four days. Among them were many leaders from Protestantism, Buddhism and other religions. Numerous non-Catholic believers and influential figures in society, including incumbent and former presidents, also visited. Hundreds of news articles remembering Kim made the headlines for days. Outside Korea, including the United States, expatriate Korean Catholics also paid tribute to him.
He then made a journey never to return, leaving a question: What drove the entire country to mourn his death, transcending religious boundaries?
An official at the Archdiocese of Seoul said, ``Today's absence of a truly reliable leader in Korean society might be the reason.''
``Kim dedicated his entire life to resolving social conflicts and integrating communities divided by various factors, including ideology, economic power and religion,'' the official, who refused to be named, said. ``He played the role of a `true leader' that nobody can replace.''
Kim Ho-gi, sociology professor at Yonsei University, said, ``We have ignored the importance of moral and ethical values to survive in this secular and winner-take-all society. As such, the death of Kim, who served as the last resort of such values, seems to have moved many people.''
Lee O-young, honorary chair professor of Ewha University's Academy for Advanced Studies and a former culture minister, said, ``He expanded his realm of action beyond his religion. His work was never focused on religious affairs. He always embraced people regardless of their religion, ideology or wealth.''
Park Won-soon, head of the Hope Institute, a civic group, said, ``He was not a leader in economics or politics, considered the two most important aspects of society. But he was a `beacon of hope' leading us to a better life. The huge crowd surrounding the cathedral reflect people's wish to live in a society full of happiness and gratitude, rather than be classified by their income and other secular criteria.''
Religious scholars and those versed in religious history said Kim's death has played a great role in drawing people's attention to Catholicism and deepening their understanding of the religion. They also cautiously forecast an increase in the number of Catholic believers. Particularly those with no specific religious beliefs are showing interest in the religion.
Several articles and questions about the religion have been posted on major portals following Kim's demise. ``I've never believed in a religion, but moved by Kim, I'm considering believing in Catholicism,'' an Internet user ㅡ aloha365 ㅡ said.
Prof. Yun Won-cheol at Seoul National University's department of religious Studies said when Ven. Seong-cheol, a spiritual leader of Korean Buddhism, passed away in 1993, there was a similar effect. ``It's uncertain exactly how many believers increased then but it was true that the demand for publications on Buddhism explosively increased,'' he said.