DAEJEON, South Korea - Pope Francis urged Asia's 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 Asia'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 to the central city of Daejeon, where Catholic youths from across Asia have been meeting for the Asian version of World Youth Day.
In his homily, Francis urged the young people to be a force 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," he 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. 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. Upon how many of our young people has this despair taken its toll!"
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 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.
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."
Lombardi didn't provide details of the content of the meeting.
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.
South Korean Catholics represent only about 10 percent of the country's 50 million people, but their numbers are growing. Once a country that welcomed missionaries, South Korea now sends homegrown priests and nuns abroad to help spread the faith.