First Place Award for General Excellence, Catholic Press Association, 2013-2016

During Visit, Pope Encourages Colombians to Pursue Peace
COLOMBIA CHEER—The Holy Father smiles at happy children during a visit to the Cross of Reconciliation at Los Fundadores Park in Villavicencio, Colombia, Sept. 8.

Pope Francis said he had no magic words or special recipes for Colombians seeking peace, but rather he wanted to listen to them, learn from them and travel a bit of the road with them.

He had a small accident on the road Sept. 10 in Cartagena, the last city and last day of his five-day trip: Riding in the popemobile down a street packed with people who wanted to see him, Pope Francis turned and bashed his face on the edge of the window, cutting his eyebrow and provoking a sizable bump on his left cheekbone.

While the bruise would fade, the overall experience of the trip was likely to linger. “I really was moved by the joy, the tenderness...the nobility of the Colombian people,” he later told reporters flying back to Rome with him.

Before ending the trip with a Mass in Cartagena, Pope Francis had visited Bogota, Villavicencio and Medellin. He celebrated a large outdoor Mass in each city and had a packed schedule of meetings with government officials, bishops, youths, children living in a group home, and with priests, religious and seminarians.

At the Sept. 8 Mass in Villavicencio, celebrated in the middle of a broad field typical of the area’s cattle ranching terrain, Pope Francis beatified Bishop Jesus Emilio Jaramillo Monsalve of Arauca, who was murdered by Colombian Marxist guerrillas in 1989, and Father Pedro Maria Ramirez, who was killed at the start of the Colombian civil war in 1948.

The painful realities of Colombia’s recent past were openly acknowledged with tears and hugs Sept. 8 in Villavicencio. At a national prayer service for reconciliation, a former member of the main rebel group and a former fighter with a paramilitary group shared their stories and asked forgiveness. A woman who lost two small children in the fighting and another still limping from injuries suffered in an explosion in 2012 offered to “forgive the unforgiveable,” as Pastora Mira Garcia, the mourning mother, told the pope.

The theme of his trip was “Let’s take the first step,” and Pope Francis told reporters he hoped that, after he left, Colombians would take a second step.

Pope Francis seemed confident. No matter how thorough political leaders and professional mediators are in bartering and building consensus, he said, “the protagonist of peacemaking is the people; if not, it will only go so far.”

The country is divided not only between those who participated in the war and those who innocently suffered its effects, but also between those who support and those who oppose the 2016 treaty that led to the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, commonly known as FARC.

Cardinal Ruben Salazar Gomez of Bogota told the pope Sept. 7 that the process of building peace “has become a source of political polarization that every day sows division, confrontation and disorientation.”

No peace deal can last without addressing the poverty and social exclusion that led so many people to fight in the first place, the pope said.

“If Colombia wants a stable and lasting peace,” he said Sept. 10, “it must urgently take a step in this direction, which is that of the common good, of equity, of justice, of respect for human nature and its demands. Only if we help to untie the knots of violence will we unravel the complex threads of disagreements.”

With St. Peter Claver, the 17th-century Jesuit saint and apostle of the slaves, never far from his mind, Pope Francis asked Colombians to ensure all the nation’s people are part of its progress.

The pope ended his trip in the city where the saint died and his relics are venerated.

With great respect for what Colombians have suffered and admiration for the faith and hope they managed to maintain despite a 52-year civil war, Pope Francis asked them to look beyond their old behaviors and alliances and ask what new thing God might want of them.

“We are called upon to be brave, to have that evangelical courage which springs from knowing that there are many who are hungry, who hunger for God, who hunger for dignity, because they have been deprived,” the pope said at a Mass in Medellin Sept. 9.



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