Pope Francis rocked a Kia Soul during the first day of his five-day trip to South Korea. The pope also made a public speech in English for the first time Thursday.
The pope’s choice in cars surprised many people in South Korea, where big shots rarely take to the streets in a non-luxury car. But after his arrival Thursday, the Guardian notes that Francis left the airport in a compact Kia hatchback. The vehicle choice is one many in the country would consider too humble a car for a globally powerful figure.
While South Koreans may be surprised, the choice of vehicle isn’t unusual for Pope Francis, whose frugality and humble demeanor are well-known. But South Korea is a competitive country that celebrates massive displays of status and wealth. The national trait is easily seen through the boom in private tutoring and plastic surgery.
The pope’s Kia Soul decision makes sense for a man called “the people’s pope.” He has also traded the bulletproof “popemobiles” on foreign trips for low-key cars. He has also urged priests around the world to follow his example.
Inside Vatican City, Francis uses a blue Ford Focus or a white open-topped vehicle that allows him to reach out and touch the crowd in St. Peter’s Square.
ABC News reports that Kim Ji-hwan, a journalism student in Seoul, stated of the pope’s decision to ride in a Kia Soul, “It was just funny, how he climbed into a tiny car like a cat going for a small cozy space.” He added, “It’s humbling and at the same time respectful. The Korean Protestant priests at mega-churches ride Mercedez-Benz.”
While he chose a low-key vehicle, Pope Francis was still accompanied by an entourage of dozens of luxury SUVs and police motorbikes, signalling that the occupant inside the Kia Soul was important.
Pope Francis, who normally speaks Italian at public appearances, or more rarely Spanish, gave a 10-minute speech in English for the first time. The 77-year-old head of the Catholic church has been studying English to better communicate with English-speaking Asians without a translator, according to a news release.
Lionel Jensen, Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures at University of Notre Dame, noted, “English is the only universal language that he could communicate with people in Asia.” Jensen went on to say, “It’s a symbolic gesture, making an overture to connect with the Asian youth, but it does put an enormous amount of pressure on him that his English is understandable.”
In his biography, El Jesuits, the pope admitted having a hard time learning phonetics of English words because he is “tone deaf.” While the speech was a milestone for Pope Francis, it was his Kia Soul that arguably gained him more attention.