Pope Francis is visiting Colombia on the northwest corner of Latin America Sept. 6 - 10. It is neighbour to Panama where the next World Youth Day will be celebrated in 2019.
His visit to Colombia fulfils a promise he made after a peace accord was signed in 2016. The people of Colombia suffered a civil war for 52 years. At least 220,000 people were killed and another six million were uprooted from their homes.
The bishops of Colombia describe their current situation as “a terrible tomb” that “has been crushed with armed conflict, drug trafficking, insecurity and inequality.”
In a document designed to prepare people for the visit, they said the pope is coming “to take the first step with us” in building a new society. The country faces a host of complicated processes for reintegrating former combatants into society and compensating victims of the conflict. The theme of the visit is “to take the first step” toward reconciliation.
In a commentary Rome correspondent Cindy Wooden outlined four steps the pope may emphasize based on his past experience.
The first step is to put justice into practice. This will mean letting go of festering anger and resentment after five decades of civil unrest. In a similar message to South Koreans in 2014, Pope Francis told Catholics: “Jesus asks us to believe that forgiveness is the door which leads to reconciliation. In telling us to forgive our brothers unreservedly, he is asking us to do something utterly radical, but he also gives us the grace to do it.”
A second step includes taking responsibility for any way one contributed to the tensions, even remotely, and asking forgiveness. In 2015, for example, Pope Francis told Sri Lankans to ask “for the grace to make reparation for our sins and for all the evil which this land has known” after 25 years of civil war.
A third step involves a commitment to sincere dialogue. He urges former combatants to listen to one another and respond to the needs of those whose dignity has been crushed by poverty, discrimination or exclusion from political and social life. “This will allow different voices to unite in creating a melody of sublime nobility and beauty, instead of the fanatical cries of hatred,” he told the citizens of Sarajevo in 2015.
Another step the pope encourages is to start with prayer and small gestures. “Thank God for the acts of solidarity and generosity which he inspires in us, for the joy and love with which he fills our families and our communities,” he said in his 2015 visit to the Central African Republic.
“Thank God for his gift of courage, which inspires us to forge bonds of friendship, to dialogue with those who are different than ourselves, to forgive those who have wronged us, and to work to build a more just and fraternal society in which no one is abandoned.”
Pope Francis is not the only Jesuit trying to change society by emphasizing the need for reconciliation. As reported in last week’s Prairie Messenger, Canadian Jesuits organized the Canadian Canoe Pilgrimage to help reconciliation with people of the First Nations. The 800-kilometre canoe trip followed the river route travelled four centuries ago by explorers and Jesuit martyrs, including St. Jean de Brefeuf.
The 26-day summer trip, though tougher than expected, fulfilled all the group’s expectations and more. It strenghtened the bonds among the Jesuits, indigenous peoples, religious and lay people who took part in the pilgrimage. It was taking the first step toward reconciliation, and it bears imitating.
When Pope Francis visits Colombia he will honour another Jesuit who lived four centuries ago.
Young Peter Claver arrived in Cartagena from Spain in 1610 at a time when the slave trade was booming in Colombia. More than 78,000 African slaves arrived between 1570 and 1640 — some 10,000 a year.
After five years of studies in Bogota, he returned to Cartagena, where he was ordained in 1616. Referring to himself as “the slave of slaves,” he joined another Jesuit, Rev. Alonso de Sandoval, who spoke up about the injustice of slavery; he continued that ministry after de Sandoval was transferred to Peru in 1617.
At a time when the Catholic Church did not speak out against slavery in the Spanish colonies, and when even some Jesuit superiors criticized him, Claver made it his ministry to meet the traffickers’ ships at the slave port. Accompanied by slaves who spoke the new arrivals’ languages, he went first to help children and the sick. His humanitarian care and catechesis continued in the squalid houses where traders housed the slaves until they were sold or shipped to another port.
Canonized in 1888, Claver is honoured as the patron saint of human rights in Colombia. But although the country abolished slavery in 1851 and passed a law prohibiting discrimination in 1993, racism persists.
“In Colombia, there are still many human rights violations, especially of Afro-Colombian, indigenous and poor communities, particularly in cultural, economic, social and environmental rights, and rights to education, health and work,” said Rev. Carlos Eduardo Correa, provincial superior of the Jesuits in Colombia. They are marginalized and abandoned by the government.
The pope’s visit to Cartagena Sept. 10 will quietly highlight the persistent inequality in Latin America, which has some of the highest income disparities in the world. Tourists flock to the Caribbean city’s beach resorts, which contrast sharply with the poverty in which most of the city’s large Afro-Colombian population still lives, said Correa.
Pope Francis consistently condemns slavery and racism, both in history and today. His visit to Cartagena offers a world stage to repeat his message. It’s unlikely it is preached on the beach resorts.