POPE Francis arrived in Colombia for a Papal visit at a delicate time– a 2016 peace treaty between the biggest leftist rebel group and the elected government is being implemented to put an end to a 52-year civil conflict.
The deal disarms and demobilises the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known as the FARC, from their Spanish initials), but there are many controversial clauses including impunity for some guerrilla leaders if they participate in a truth and reconciliation process.
This is a sore point given that more than 200,000 people were killed in the conflict and hundreds of thousands more were displaced.
Beyond that, the deal went ahead even though a referendum in late 2016 on the subject had an abstention rate of 60 per cent and the result from those that did vote was a win for the “no deal” camp.
In a speech in Villavicencio, Colombia, the Pope addressed this by saying, “Every effort at peace without a sincere commitment to reconciliation is destined to fail.”
Before and during his trip, the Pope hoped to use the moral authority of the Church to promote peace and forgiveness, given that Colombia has a population that is more than 70 per cent Catholic and has one of the largest cohorts of clergy in Latin America.
The Argentine-born Pope is also widely popular in the general population, with crowds of more than one million people showing up in both Bogota and Medellin during his visit.
The theme of the visit of Pope Francis to Colombia between September 6-10 was “Demos el primer paso” or “Let’s take the first step.”
In the days running up to the Pope’s visit, tangible steps towards peace were being taken, for example, the government announced a three-month cease-fire with the other main guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army, known as the ELN.
On another front, the FARC just last week formally began their transition into a legitimate political party and they completed their disarmament earlier in the year, handing in their guns in a UN-supervised process.
However, the overall deal was put together without a significant Vatican role over the course of four years, with the FARC leadership and the government meeting in Havana, Cuba.
This contrasts with the Pope’s major role in secretly hosting some of the negotiations that led to the thawing of relations between the United States and Cuba.
But there are deep ties between Colombia and the Holy See when it comes to social justice issues.
Long before Medellin was famous as the home of Pablo Escobar, it was known in Catholic circles for hosting a 1968 meeting of regional bishops that defined what it meant to be Catholic in Latin America.
The meeting, opened by Pope Paul VI in the first-ever papal visit to Latin America, endorsed the aim to be the “preferential option for the poor” as the church’s guiding mission.
Colombian clergy had key roles in the post-Second Vatican Council world, particularly in promoting a justice message.
Back in the present day, backing the peace is a delicate balance, with conservative Catholic elements saying publicly they were unhappy with Holy See endorsement of this deal.
However, at least one senior bishop in Colombia doesn’t see it that way.
According to Monsignor Juan Carlos Cárdenas Toro, a bishop from Cali, in the south of Colombia, the peace isn’t a partisan issue.
“This Pope isn’t about left or right, he’s about hope,” he said.
The impact of the Pope’s visit isn’t just being felt in Colombia alone.
Catalina Rivera Giraldo, who now lives on the Gold Coast, is originally from Bucaramanga, in the Colombian department of Santander.
For her, the Pope’s visit has a larger significance, even though she is living in Australia.
“As a Colombian person I recognise that about 90 per cent (sic) of Colombian people are Catholic and the Pope’s visit is very important for all of us, including me,” she told The Catholic Leader.
“It will help the peace process for sure, I think the Pope is going to Colombia to leave a message of peace as he knows that it is in this moment that the Colombian people need join together to get true peace.”
In Cartagena, during his last Mass of the trip, Pope Francis used his homily to drive home the role of forgiveness in the peace process.
“If Colombia wants a stable and lasting peace, 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,” he said.
The years that follow will see whether Colombia manages to heal deep divisions by heeding this advice.
By Andrew J Wight