South Korea bade farewell yesterday to the country’s first Roman Catholic cardinal in a funeral Mass at the church where he criticized dictatorship and promoted democracy and human rights.
Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, who died on Monday at the age of 86, was a spiritual icon in South Korea for his opposition to the military-backed authoritarian rule that ended two decades ago.
“He was a saint-like candlelight among us,” Cardinal Nicholas Cheong Jin-suk said during rites at Myeongdong Cathedral in central Seoul. “We remember Cardinal Kim as a priest who gave up his life to love, for God and for his people.”
The church was packed with about 1,000 mourners, including South Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-soo, as well as ambassadors from Britain, Australia, Spain, Germany and France. Thousands more listened outside.
Kim was “a great pillar” of South Korea, President Lee Myung-bak said in a message read by Han. “Though the cardinal leaves us, he will be with us in our hearts forever.”
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrived in Seoul late on Thursday for talks with officials as part of an Asian tour, also praised Kim.
“He was a great spiritual leader, not only for Korea and the people of Korea, but for the whole world,” Clinton said at a joint press conference with South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan as the funeral was under way.
Kim’s coffin was moved to a cemetery in Yongin, near Seoul, for burial.
On top of an outpouring of sentiment and emotion from ordinary citizens, Kim’s death brought forth a flow of tributes from Pope Benedict XVI, former South Korean president and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Kim Dae-jung and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
More than 387,000 people stood in line in freezing temperatures throughout the week to pay their respects to Kim at the cathedral.
South Korea was mostly ruled by military strongmen from 1961 until the late 1980s and Kim was outspoken in calling for democratization. He used his Easter sermon in 1987 to lash out at the government of President Chun Doo-hwan, a former general, as “despotic.”
Chun, 77, was among the mourners who paid respects to Kim this week, visiting the cathedral on Wednesday.
Kim’s death leaves Cheong, the archbishop of Seoul, as the only remaining cardinal in South Korea, home to 4.8 million Catholics.
The religion was introduced to the Korean peninsula in 1784.
Kim was born in 1922 in the southeastern city of Daegu. He attended the Jesuit-run Sophia University in Tokyo, but his studies were interrupted during World War II. He attended a seminary in Seoul and was ordained a priest in 1951 during the Korean War.
“I feel like the earth has sunken and my heart too,” said Shin Chi-gu, 78, who attended the mass. “There is a tremendous sense of loss that fills my heart at this moment.”