Cardinal Rubén Salazar Gómez of Bogotá, Colombia, worries that in our times Christianity has come to be seen as irrelevant, just another consumer choice for a generation overwhelmed by conflicting perspectives and technological and lifestyle options. “I am very conscious that we are in an age of profound changes,” the cardinal said. As the world’s bishops prepare for the synod on the family in Rome on Oct. 2, Cardinal Salazar was in New York preparing for a speech before the American Bible Society. He sat down for a wide-ranging conversation with America.
In Colombia, he said, young people, like young people all over the world, are “overwhelmed by the present” and fearful of making a commitment to the future.
“For us in Latin America and especially in Colombia it means in the first place to abandon the mentality of Christendom,” the cardinal said. In today’s world faith is not something that can appear self-evident or taken for granted as it has in the past. “Quite the contrary, it is understood as something that’s seen as almost superfluous.” The contemporary church, he believes, needs to adapt by offering a model of “profound service to humanity, profound service to persons and to society—without pretension.”
A church that is able to recover the interest of the young, “to demonstrate to them the possibility to live a life centered in the encounter with Jesus Christ…an encounter which gives meaning to life,” will be the church that can liberate the world’s young people “from the slavery of the present and invite them to be open to the future.”
That church is led by a man who seems to have captured the imagination of the world’s young people in these confusing times. According to the cardinal it is the “strong desire” of Pope Francis “to make accessible to the world of today the message of the Gospel.”
Sometimes the ways Pope Francis inspires that accessibility has created discomfort, he allows. The style of this contemporary Latin America pope may make some bishops around the world anxious, the cardinal said. They may “perceive the [pope’s] language as a little exaggerated or maybe a little inexact.”
“But at the heart of it, I think when you take seriously the message of the Holy Father, you realize this message is deeply rooted in the Gospel and the magisterium." The cardinal argues that a fair analysis would find little different in the statements on the economy and ecology made by the pope from the sentiments and arguments used by his predecessors. What has changed is the style and the emphasis of Pope Francis, which is drawing new attention to church teaching on such matters.
“Let me give you an example,” Cardinal Salazar adds, “the Holy Father is constantly talking about mercy, in fact, he’s convened a Jubilee of Mercy for the church.
“I think there is nothing else more deeply gospel-centered than mercy,” Cardinal Salazar said. “You’ll find mercy in every single word of the Gospel.”
Cardinal Salazar understands the phenomenon of Pope Francis as an expression of the sentiments of the Latin American bishops’ as they were developed in Aparecida, Brazil, where they held their fifth general conference in 2007.
“When I greeted the Holy Father after his election, I said to him, ‘I am very happy because the spirit of Aparecida has arrived and will go out to all the church,’ and the Holy Father told me: ‘I hope, with the help of all of you, we will be able to accomplish this.’
“I think that, yes, the greatest insights that the Holy Father has had at this time about a church which goes forth, about a church of service, a poor church that brings life to a world that has placed money at the center of everything, these were insights that were very close to the reflections out of Latin American theology that were especially expressed in Aparecida.”
These are insights and reflections, he said, that may have special resonance in Latin America, but which are intended for all the church and all the world. They are at the heart of the message of the pope’s encyclical “Laudato Si.’”
"The pope is the pope," he says, smiling broadly. "He's not the Italian pope or the Polish pope or the German pope or the Latin American pope."
On a pressing issue closer to home, the cardinal regards with growing confidence Colombia’s progress on peace, a process that made major gains just a few days before he spoke with America. After years of negotiation a peace accord was signed in Havana on September 23 that promises to end the hemisphere’s longest armed struggle. Final sticking points are intended to be resolved by March 23, 2016; the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (better known by its Spanish acronym, FARC) will then will have 60 days to disarm and reconstitute itself as a political party.
“We have lived 51 years in a senseless war between the state and guerrilla forces,” Cardinal Salazar said. “This is a war that has produced tremendous damage to our country; we have more than 7 million victims. Of those more than 6 million are internally displaced people.
“We are the second country after Syria in terms of displaced people,” the cardinal said, “We have had over 300,000 killed.” The persistence and level of the conflict has had a profoundly harmful effect on the national psyche, he added, creating a mentality that accepts violence as a valid social expression.
The negotiations in Havana have been difficult. A major sticking point was the demand for accountability for atrocities and kidnappings that took placed during decades of conflict. But despite the successful conclusion of the dialogue powerful factions in Colombia still push for the accord’s rejection and a final military solution to the struggle.
“The church has always supported the negotiations,” said Cardinal Salazar, “because we are convinced that only dialogue and meeting together is what can end this conflict,” though it did not play a direct role in the final discussions. “The negotiations have been between the government and the guerrillas,” said Cardinal Salazar, “and the church is neither the government nor the guerrillas.”
But Cardinal Salazar suggested that the church had helped create a grounding for peace in Colombia. In addition to the consistent endorsement of the local church, the peace process received a further boost from Pope Francis, who repeatedly encouraged negotiators to complete their work, even delegating an observer from the Holy See to Havana as the discussions reached a critical impasse. “Our role has been to work with the base of society, especially the victims of this conflict,” the cardinal said, “to create a climate of forgiveness and reconciliation, to work with our communities so that the principals of solidarity and fraternity will permeate.”
Now, the cardinal concludes, the really hard work begins.
“To make a peace is to sign the agreement, that ends the conflict,” the cardinal said, “but to build a peace, that means to build a new country, a country animated directly by solidarity, by fraternity, a true country—a democracy.” He adds that the Colombian people hope that the United States will be ready to practically assist in the building of this peace. The United States has spent billions as part of its Plan Colombia in military and economic aid aimed at combatting the drug trade. The cardinal hopes such a level of commitment will continue now that peace is closer to an expectation than a hope.
The church will continue to do its work in Colombia, going out to assist the marginalized whether among the nation’s urban poor or reaching out to its indigenous communities behind FARC lines. The church, in fact, has a presence in Colombia in many areas the government is unable to reach. What Pope Francis has called the economy of exclusion is especially serious in a country like Colombia, the cardinal said. That's why in Colombia the church has become a prime mover in rural and urban efforts that are real-world exemplars of the “integral development” proposed by Pope Francis. The world cannot know peace, he said, if it continues to tolerate “these huge numbers of people who are excluded.”