The Pope today met the French-Colombian ex-hostage Ingrid Betancourt for 25 minutes in Castel Gandolfo. They had a lot to talk about. Betancourt, it turns out, had a remarkable journey of faith during her six years as the world’s most famous hostage -- and the Pope has a role in it.
One day, after she had been marching for many hours without knowing where the guerrillas were taking her, she felt "an immense anguish and despair because I could not see where Calvary ended." She turned on her radio and heard the Pope saying her name, pleading for her to be freed.
"You can’t measure the psychological effect of that," she told a press conference in Rome. "For me it was like a light and that’s why, ever since I was set free, I wanted to come and see him and embrace him".
So she did -- dispensing with protocol. As soon she saw Benedict XVI she hugged him.
She told him that on 1 June she had asked Jesus for a miracle -- not to be freed but to know when she would be, so that she could "at least have the strength to endure". Do this for me, Betancourt told Jesus, "and I will be yours".
She made this pledge after hearing on a Catholic radio station about a saint whose name she does not remember. She recalled only that Jesus had told her that if she surrendered herself to his Sacred Heart he would melt the hard hearts of those who made her suffer, would bless her plans, and would help her carry her cross.
"I needed that," said Betancourt. "I needed Jesus to soften the hard hearts of the guerrillas, and to help me carry my cross -- because I could go no further."
A few days later, on 27 June, a FARC commander told her that she would be visited by an international commission. While being moved to the meeting point she was freed in a spectacular military operation.
The Pope, said Betancourt, told her that God had responded to her prayers because she had known what to ask for. "You didn’t ask for your freedom but to do God’s will, and for help in carrying out God’s will", is what she says Benedict XVI told her.
People who have suffered intensely and grown closer to Christ are always worth listening to.
Asked how she finds the world she is now back in, Betancourt said she had noticed how people "are afraid to lose what they have".
She also said she had also been struck by how negatively the rich countries react to the desperate migrants who arrive on the shores of developed countries in search of a better life.
That’s two deceptively simple observations worth dwelling on.
Betancourt must have been pinching herself today. Just a few weeks ago she was in the Colombian jungle, surrounded by men in khaki with machine guns, living each day as she had for the previous six years -- not knowing if she would live another month. And today she was in Castel Gandolfo, nibbling biscotti while looking out on Lake Albano (allow me an imaginative licence at this point) in the company of the successor of the apostle Peter.
After praying with Benedict XVI she told a press conference that "the Pope carries the pain of those who suffer in his heart, and especially that of my compañeros who are still prisoners", adding that "human pain cannot remain hidden behind frontiers".
She also used the occasion to send a message to her fellow captives back home.
"Don’t forget that this life is worth living," she assured them.
Maybe that’s something only the liberated can ever say with certainty.