Some reflections about the papal visit to Colombia, 7-9 Sept. 2017 

By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

The recent pastoral visit of Pope Francis in Colombia (September 6- Sept 11th) must be seen in light of the Pope’s personal effort to help the Colombian people find a way towards peace. For more than half a century Colombia has been torn apart by fratricidal war – a war conducted between guerilla forces, drug- mafia and paramilitary forces that have brought the country to the abyss. During this atrocious war approximately half a million were killed while almost 7 Million are refugees or displaced people.

The motto chosen for the papal trip was therefore “Demos el primer paso”. It referred to the efforts that a year ago ended in a fragile peace deal signed between the government and the FARC (Guerilla). As the Pope kept reiterating in his different addresses, a formal peace agreement is by no means a “guarantee” that the deep wounds will heal in the Colombian people. But it is nonetheless an indispensable first step so that in “the long run” peace and reconciliation can be achieved. For this to happen what is needed is a concrete “encounter and dialogue” between the warring parties and that the “Colombian people” takes this peace process into its hands. Yet without “truth” there can be no reconciliation, the Pope said in an address in Villavicencio. “It is a great challenge, but a necessary one, since truth is an inseparable companion of justice and mercy.”

Precedent: Thirty years war (1618 -1648) and the Westphalian Peace

From the viewpoint of the author of this article who is German origin, there are numerous precedents in the history of Europe for such a complicated “peace and reconciliation process”. One should just recall the horrendous 30 years religious war in Europe (1618-48) which lasted 20 years less than the modern war in Colombia, leaving the European continent in ruins and bringing about the death of 6 Million people. The final step to bring an end to this war was the “Westphalian Peace treaty” which was signed in the cities of Münster and Osnabrück by the warring parties, choosing as their motto for peace, that there be “mutual forgiveness and reconciliation.” It is noteworthy that at the end of his trip Pope Francis sent a message to the annual conference “Paths towards peace” which this year again took place in Münster assembling representatives from different religions. In his message he referred to the fact that we celebrate this year the 30th anniversary of the process of “peace and dialogue” initiated by Pope St. John Paul II in Assisi in 1986. “Our path to peace is not that of those who profane God’s name by spreading hatred; it has nothing to do with the bane of war, the folly of terrorism or the illusory force of arms. Ours must be a path of peace, uniting ‘many religious traditions for which compassion and nonviolence are essential elements, pointing to the way of life’.”

In the same message Pope Francis underlined how important it is to seek processes of liberation from the evils of war and hatred. For this to happen, the first step is to feel the pain of others, to make it our own. He emphasized how important it was that the meeting takes place in the heart of Europe reminding that “Peace has been at the heart of Europe’s reconstruction following the devastation caused by two disastrous world wars and the terrible tragedy of the Shoah. May your presence in Germany be a sign and a summons for Europe to cultivate peace through a commitment to paving new paths to a solid unity.”

The problem of corruption

On his way back from Colombia to Rome Pope Francis gave a press conference in which he resumed what he wanted to essentially get across to the Colombian people. He underlined that we now must make a “second step”, given the fact that during almost 54 years of guerilla war a lot has accumulated: a tremendous amount of hatred, viciousness. He compared it to a horrible disease which has infected the human soul: “A sick soul is a disease, whether we talk about guerilla or paramilitary, we face a deep problem of “corruption” which has so often provoked the disease of hatred in Colombia”, he stated at one point. While he sees that certain steps have been made to go forward like the ceasefire agreement, what really counts for him is the “will” of the people to go forward in this process, which goes far beyond the formal aspects of what is negotiated. “The people want to breathe but we must help it help with closeness, prayer and understanding how much suffering it went through.” One of the biggest diseases according to the Pope is “corruption.” He made a brief reference to a booklet which he published in 2005/ 2013 in Buenos Aires under the title “Sin and Corruption.” He made reference during the press conference to the case of the violent abuse of a girl in Catamarca (Argentina) “which at the time involved very high level people, including politicians and economists in the region”.

Being asked whether corrupt people should be “excommunicated” Pope Francis indirectly answered by stressing that one must be aware of the fact that one of the gravest problems is that the “corrupt” often forgets how to ask for forgiveness. “God does not get tired to forgive but the sinner must sometimes find the courage to ask for forgiveness”. This incapacity to ask for forgiveness, he calls it a “state of total insensitivity towards values, destruction, the exploitation of the human person. He is not capable to ask for forgiveness”. Yet he also underlined that the process of peace only will move forward if it is taken in the hands by the people, and that this was the essential message he tried to get across in Colombia: “Either the protagonist of pacification is the people, or we arrive only at a certain point. But when the people take the task into its hands, it is able to do it well.” He invoked a very strong image, to express how emotionally touched he was when during his visit so many people in the streets showed him their babies and children as if to they wanted to say: This is my treasure and my hope is my future.

During a liturgy in Cartagena de Indias he emphasized that the plan to have a “legal framework and institutional agreements between political and economic groups of good will” is not sufficient. That the main cause and historical actor in these processes are “human beings” and their culture, not a class, a faction, a group, an elite -“it’s the entire people and its culture, since we talk about an agreement, a social and cultural agreement.” He strongly condemned in this context “drug trade” and “financial speculation” referring to those people who remain in “sin and corruption”. “I think of the horrendous drama of drugs, which is used in order to make profit, which has spoiled the moral and civil laws of society” and he strongly urged to “look for ways, to end the drug trade, which only spreads death, destroying so many hopes and so many families.” He also made reference to “financial speculation”, which often is robbery and detrimental for the economy and society, throwing millions into poverty and that if “Colombia wants a stable and sustainable peace it must urgently do a step in this direction, common good, equality of chances, justice, respect of the human nature. We must build peace.”

In his meeting with the country’s authorities, the diplomatic Corps and representatives of civil society in the Casa de Nariño Presidential Place‘s Parade Square “Plaza de Armas”, the Pope expressed his appreciation for those efforts that have been undertaken to end decades of armed violence and to seek out paths of reconciliation and urged to implement a “culture of encounter.” This requires that at the center of all political social and economic activity there is “the human person”, who enjoys the highest dignity and respect for the common good. The Pope urged the political responsible people, to get away from the “temptation to vengeance and the satisfaction of short term partisan interests.” He pointed to the fact that the process of peace is long term and that what is e “needed it not the law of the most powerful but the power of law, approved by all, that regulates a peaceful coexistence. Just laws are needed, which can ensure harmony and which can help overcome the conflicts that have torn apart this nation for decades.”

The legacy of Aparecida

In two separate addresses – one given to the episcopal conference of CELAM, the other to the bishops of Colombia – the pope specifically called upon the cardinals and bishops to be conscious of the important legacy of Aparecida, the last synodal conference of CELAM in Latin America which defined the continental mission of the Church, which is “not a collection of programs that fill agendas and waste precious energies but is meant to place a mission of Jesus at the heart of the Church.”

Pope Francis called upon the Church representatives not to give in to the temptation to make the “Gospel an ideology, ecclesial functionalism and clericalism” and stated that “the Gospel can’t be reduced to a program at the service of a trendy Gnosticism, a project of social improvement or the Church conceived as a comfortable bureaucracy, any more than she can be reduced to an organization run according to modern business models by a clerical caste.” The Church’s mission is not to live a comfortable life. “We cannot let ourselves by paralyzed by our air- conditioned offices, our statistics and our strategies. We have to speak to men and women in their concrete situations; we cannot avert our gaze from them. The mission is carried out by one to one contact.”

What defines the task for the Church, according to Pope Francis, is to work quietly and “tirelessly to build, bridges, to tear down walls, to integrate diversity, to promote the culture for encounter and dialogue, to teach forgiveness and reconciliation, the sense of justice, the rejection of violence.” He urged that the bishops and cardinals must constantly be in dialogue with the people. “We cannot lose contact with this moral substratum, with its rich soil present in the heart of our people, wherein we see the subtle ever eloquent elements that make up its mestizo face—not merely indigenous, Hispanic, Portuguese or African, but mestizo: Latin American! Guadalupe and Aparecida are programmatic signs of the divine creativity that has brought this about and that underlies the popular piety of our people, which is part of its anthropological uniqueness and a gift by which god want s our people to come to know him.”

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