Dear Blog Readers –
Next Wednesday I will be heading to Colombia on the Papal plane to cover Pope Francis’ five-day trip to four Colombian cities as part as his effort to boost the peace process. I intend to do a post once I am back so this is just a little preview – mostly as a preparatory exercise for myself – of what we can expect from the trip.
The Pope’s trip to Colombia is his 20th trip as Pope. He has been to Colombia before as a bishop and when he was a priest back in the 1970s. He is not the first Pope to visit. Pope Paul VI visited in 1968 and attended a conference of Latin American Bishops in Medellin where they agreed that the church should make a “preferential option for the poor.” The view evolved into the “liberation theology” movement so intensely disliked by Pope John Paul II. A church of the poor is definitely in line with the thinking of Pope Francis.
John Paul II traveled to Colombia in 1986 and visited 10 cities including one hit by terrible mudslides that left over 20,000 thousand dead.
Pope Francis showed a keen interest in the Colombia peace talks from the beginning of his papacy and in 2016 he announced that he would pay a visit to Colombia once the peace process was complete.
Finally, in September 2016 in Cartagena, the Colombian government and the FARC rebel leaders signed an agreement to end the 53-year war that has left at least 250,000 dead, thousands more missing and millions displaced. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos shook hands with rebel leader Rodrigo Londono, also known as Timochenko, to seal the deal that was negotiated over four years in Havana, Cuba and involves detailed plans for the roughly 6-7,000 remaining armed fighters to move into UN organized de-militarized camps where they are handing over their weapons. Under a transitional justice system, fighters will be given a chance to do community work instead of going to prison in exchange for confessions and reparations. The FARC has been allowed to set up its own political party and has been guaranteed a total of seats, 5 in each chamber of parliament until 2026. The agreement provides for land reform and tries to address the question of gross inequalities in Colombia.
Just one month later the people of Colombia rejected the accord in a national referendum, sending the negotiators back to the table. A new version of the accord was eventually approved by the Colombian legislature on December 1st.
The Vatican has announced that the slogan for the Pope’s trip is “Demos el primer paso” – “Let’s take the first step” with an accompanying image of the Pope in his white cassock and signature black shoes taking a step.
The Pope’s first stop will be Bogota’ where the Vatican has declared the theme of the day will be “Artisans of Peace, Promoters of Life.” He will make the usual stops he makes on every foreign trip, speaking to government officials and making a courtesy visit to President Juan Manuel Santos.
Santos won the Nobel Prize for peace in 2016 for his efforts to end the Colombian civil war. He visited Pope Francis in December 2016, together with his predecessor Alvaro Uribe who led the campaign to vote against the peace accords in the October referendum. The Pope invited Uribe to join Santos at the meeting in the Vatican to encourage a resolution to their differences over the peace accord. Uribe wants to see some rebels punished for war crimes and does not want former FARC rebels to get seats in the Colombian congress.
The Pope will also hold a meeting with Catholic Bishops on his first day in Bogota’. About 85-percent of Colombia’s 49 million people are Catholics and even many of the FARC rebels who have embraced a Marxist-Leninist political philosophy, consider themselves Catholics. Over the five decades of war, the church was often caught up in the violence with priests being killed and churches destroyed. The Catholic Church was active in the peace negotiations and is deeply involved in the transition process. The Pope will urge the bishops to continue their work in the reconciliation process.
The Pope will hold a Mass the first day in Simon Bolivar park where the Vatican expects 700,000 people. Francis will meet with people with disabilities, including people with Down’s Syndrome both at the Mass and at the Nunciature (residence of the Papal Nuncio, or Ambassador) where the Pope will be staying.
On September 8, Pope Francis will fly to Villavicencio for a day dedicated to reconciliation. As Vatican spokesman Greg Burke told reporters on Friday, it is not just about reconciliation with God and fellow Colombians but also with nature.
On arrival, the Pope will hold a Mass during which he will beatify two churchmen killed in political violence in Colombia, Jesus Jaramillo and Pedro Ramos.
When he was serving as Bishop of Arauca, Bishop Jesus Jaramillo was critical of the violence of the National Libertion Army (ELN). Jamillo was kidnapped by armed militants of the ELN in 1989 and shot twice in the head. The ELN rebel group is not part of the FARC peace agreement and is still negotiating with the Colombian government. (Note: this just changed the day after I published this post. The ELN has now signed a cease-fire with the government which will take effect October 1st.)
During the period between 1948 and 1958 that has become known as “La Violencia”, when tensions between liberals and conservatives in Colombia exploded into violence that left hundreds of thousands dead, Father Pedro Maria Ramirez Ramos was beaten to death with sticks by an angry mob hostile to the Catholic Church which they accused of being aligned with conservatives.
The headline event of the day in Villavicencio is the “Big Meeting for Prayer and National Reconciliation” at the Las Malocas Park. The Vatican estimates that six thousand people will attend this meeting where the Pope will meet with former guerrilla fighters, ex-military fighters and victims of the violence.
The Bojaya’ Crucifix will be on the stage for the reconciliation event. In 2002, 79 people seeking refuge in the Bojaya’ Church during a battle between FARC guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary fighters died when a mortar shell hit the church.
Speaking to reporters about the important role of the church in the reconciliation process Monsignor Octavio Ruiz Arenas, the former archbishop of Villavincencio, said: “The Church has to act to bring peace and reconciliation…. … to leave behind the dark, obscure past full of blood, pain and confusion that we have been living through for so many years”
The Pope will also take advantage of the location of Villavicencio between the Andes and the Amazon to launch his message of reconciliation with nature. Pope Francis has made saving Mother Earth a hallmark of his papacy with his 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si” in which he wrote:
“We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will,” adding that the earth “is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”
Speaking at the Vatican Press office on Friday, Monsignor Arenas told me, “we know that the problem of deforestation of the Amazon is terrible, and there are also illegal mining camps and terrible destruction of our natural resources so this is the moment where the pope will remind us of what he said in “Laudato si”, that we have to reconcile ourselves with nature, to show respect because we have to think about the future and what we will leave to the generations who come.”
As part of the events in Villavicencio, the Vatican will plant 1,000 trees. Pope Francis will plant a tree in front of the cross of Bojaya’.
After the day’s events the Pope will return to the Nunciature and meet with a group of victims of the violence in Colombia and their relatives.
On September 9th, the Pope will go to Medellin, once considered the cocaine capital of the world, where in the 1980s drug-kingpin Pablo Escobar’s minions ruled the city on motorbikes knocking off anyone who got the cartel’s way.
According to my guidebook, Medellin is now a thriving metropolis with fancy restaurants and interesting museums. It is also the Catholic capital of Colombia.
The Pope will hold a Mass at the airport, meet with orphan children and then in the afternoon have a meeting with priests, nuns, seminarians and their families. The Vatican is expecting 12,000 people for that.
I have been wondering if he will mention the drug business and the concern that some of the former FARC guerrillas might be tempted to go work for the cartels.
I asked Mons. Arenas what he thought about this problem. “Unfortunately, many of these guerrillas have already gone to bands of illegal groups, also paramilitary groups, many have created new groups to continue violence with another name. And we know that narco-trafficking is a source of such huge illegal earnings that it is a temptation for many. They make easy money with narco-trafficking, forgetting that they are killing so many people, especially the young who deserve a dignified life and instead are ruined by drugs.”
Arenas said he hoped that Pope Francis’ message would reach the hearts of Colombians and help lead them in the right direction.
Pope Francis will visit the Caribbean coastal city of Cartagena on his last day in Colombia and dedicate his day to questions of human trafficking and the dignity of the individual.
Cartagena was once the biggest slave-trading port in Latin America with thousands of slaves being brought in on ships and sold in the Plaza de los Coches. Pope Francis will visit the home and sanctuary of San Pedro Claver, a Jesuit priest who dedicated his life to helping slaves earning himself the nickname “the slave of the slaves.”
Pope Francis has frequently spoken out against modern human trafficking. Speaking from the window of the Apostolic apartment in July he said,
“thousands of men, women and children are innocent victims of sexual and organ trafficking, and it seems that we are so accustomed to seeing it as a normal thing…This is ugly, it is cruel, it is criminal.”
He called human trafficking, “an aberrant plague,” and, “a modern form of slavery.”
Pope Francis will probably make the connection again when he is in Cartagena.
The Pope will also spend some time with Cartagena’s Afro-Colombian population. He will be greeted by 300 people at the airport who will perform traditional dancing for him. He will visit one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods in his popemobile and make a visit to someone’s home. At the home of Pedro Claver he is scheduled to meet 300 Afro-Colombians who are being helped by Jesuits there.
While there is nothing related to Venezuela on the Pope’s agenda, it will be hard for him to ignore the roiling crisis going on just across the 2,219 kilometer (1378 mile) long border between the two countries. Over the past year, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have crossed into Colombia to escape the political turmoil, stock up on food or get medical help as Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro continues to establish what Catholic church officials have described as a “dictatorship”. Venezuelan cardinals and bishops are expected to be at papal events as well as Venezuelan refugees. Even if the Pope does not bring up the topic of Venezuela himself, he will surely be asked his views by the Venezuelans he meets and the journalists in the trip.
Associated Press will have a big team covering the whole trip. I will be traveling on the plane with AP print Vatican correspondent Nicole Winfield, AP photographer Andrew Medichini and AP Television Cameraman Gianfranco Stara in addition to the AP writers, photographers and video-journalists from our Latin America bureaus who are already there preparing all our preview coverage.
I will do a post on the trip when I get back, but if any of you are interested in the day to day comments and photos you can follow me on twitter and Instagram with my handle @trishathomasap
Thank you to AP Photographer Andrew Medichini for letting me use some of his extra photos taken at this week’s General Audience in St. Peter’s Square that were not used by AP.