International News

Pope Will Put ‘Soul’ Into Colombia’s Peace Process

By Ines San Martin

Special to The Tablet

ROME – Pope Francis heads to Colombia next week for what might be the most grueling five days of his pontificate. He’ll visit four different cities, each with contrasting altitudes and climates, and each key to the messages he wants to convey.

The trip comes less than a year after a historic peace accord between the government and the country’s guerrillas, ideally putting an end to a five-decade civil war.

The accord between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who’ve recently completed disarmament, has remained deeply controversial in Colombia, where some believe it gives too much away to the guerillas.

A man works on a mosaic of Pope Francis on a wall outside Hogar San Jose children’s home in Medellin, Colombia. The pope will visit the home Sept. 9 during his five-day visit to Colombia. (CNS photo/Luis Eduardo Noriega, EPA)


Colombians initially rejected the accord by referendum, and they weren’t consulted when the revised version was adopted two months later. A key challenge for Pope Francis will be one the government has struggled with: Balancing calls for justice for victims, and mercy for perpetrators.

“We’re living a moment of political polarization that has fractured the social fabric, a fracture that we find even in families,” said Bishop Luis Manuel Ali Herrera, auxiliary of Bogotá, and one of three men tasked with organizing the visit.

Not even the Church is immune to that polarization. For this reason, the bishops insist on saying that Pope Francis’ Sept. 6-11 visit is an apostolic one, and neither an endorsement nor a blessing of the peace process.“The Holy Father comes to confirm us in our faith in Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace,” Bishop Ali Herrera said. It’s through this confirmation, he said, that Pope Francis will help in the country’s reconciliation, and it will be a step “in the much longed-for peace in our Colombian nation.”

Archbishop Rodrigo Urbina of Villavicencio, one of the cities Pope Francis will visit, agrees. Presenting Colombia’s 30th National Week for Peace, an effort supported by 100 organizations including the Church, stressed that the pope’s visit is pastoral. “The pope supports peace, but peace is more than a process, and reconciliation is deeper,” Archbishop Urbina said. “The peace process is a strategy, but we have to put a soul into it. For us, Christians, that soul is called reconciliation.”

That call to reconciliation is an urgent one. According to a study by Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory, 220,000 people died in the conflict between 1958 and 2013, some 177,300 of who were civilians. In addition, the conflict made Colombia home to the world’s second largest population of internally displaced persons: More than five million civilians were forced from their homes between 1985 and 2012.

The Catholic Church has not been immune to violence. More than 85 priests have been assassinated since 1984, including Bishop Jesús Emilio Jaramillo Monsalve and Father Pedro María Ramírez Ramos, who will be declared martyrs by Pope Francis during the visit.

Each of the four stops, Bogotá, Villavicencio, Medellín and Cartagena were chosen because they embody issues close to the pope’s heart.

As the capital city, Bogotá is a must. There, Pope Francis will meet civil authorities, the country’s bishops, and the leadership of the Latin American Conference of Catholic Bishops (CELAM), and he’ll say Mass in Simón Bolívar Park where over a half-million people are expected.

On his second day, the pope will go to the southern city of Villavicencio, a city of the “peripheries,” in the heart of one of the regions most affected by the war. He’ll once again say Mass, and also participate in a national prayer of reconciliation.

According to many observers, the city represents a side of the country ignored for decades – forgotten, purposely under-populated and beaten down by violence. It also represents the gateway to a biodiverse Colombia, hosting a section of Latin America’s Amazonia, which the local Church is trying to preserve, answering calls to protect the environment issued by Pope Francis and his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.

On the third day, Pope Francis will fly to Medellín, once the world’s most violent city, today home to a thriving social entrepreneurship scene. The city is also a hub for religious vocations, boasting over 1,300 priests, while Cali, a city with virtually the same number of inhabitants, has only 230.

While in Medellín, the pope will have an encounter with an estimated 12,000 priests, men and women religious, consecrated persons, seminarians and their families in the La Macarena indoor stadium.

According to Bishop Ali Herrera, during his time in Medellín, Pope Francis will focus especially on religious vocations.

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