Pope Francis is going to Colombia this week. Here's what you need to know

A man works on a mosaic of Pope Francis on a wall outside Hogar San Jose children's home in Medellin, Colombia. The pope will visit the home Sept. 9 during his five-day visit to Colombia. (CNS photo/Luis Eduardo Noriega, EPA) A man works on a mosaic of Pope Francis on a wall outside Hogar San Jose children's home in Medellin, Colombia. The pope will visit the home Sept. 9 during his five-day visit to Colombia. (CNS photo/Luis Eduardo Noriega, EPA)

On the eve his five-day visit to Colombia, which starts on Sept. 6, Pope Francis addressed this nation of 48 million people in a video message. He emphasized the need for peace and reconciliation in this politically polarized, majority-Catholic country, where the majority live in poverty. Colombia has been torn by armed conflict since 1964, and drug-trafficking related to cocaine production is a major problem.

Demos el primer paso” (“Let us take the first step”) is the motto for the visit, and Francis, in his message, said it reminds us that “a first step is always required for any activity or project” and “also urges us to be the first to love, in order to build bridges, and create solidarity. Taking the first step encourages us to reach out to our neighbor, to extend a helping-hand and to offer a sign of peace.”

Referring to the main purpose of his visit, Francis spoke of peace. “Peace is what Colombia has sought after for a long time, and she is working to achieve it: A stable and lasting peace, so that we see and treat each other as brothers and not as enemies. Peace reminds us that we are all children of the same Father, who loves and consoles us,” he said.

Colombia has suffered from an internal conflict that began decades ago when two guerrilla movements—the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia) and the Marxist-led E.L.N. (Ejército de Liberación Nacional)—began fighting the government for land rights and to protect rural communities. FARC, the larger of these movements, signed historic peace accords, brokered by Cuba, with the government last year. That peace was only achieved sadly after 52 years of conflict that left 260,200 dead, 60,000 unaccounted for and over 7 million displaced. The disarming of FARC was officially completed on Aug. 15.

A second, equally brutal armed conflict, however, is still being conducted by the E.L.N. (with 1,500 fighters); but following negotiations with the government in Quito for most of this year, just 48 hours before the pope’s arrival, the two sides declared they had agreed to a ceasefire that could open the way to a final peace settlement.

Pope Francis will visit four cities in Colombia over the coming days—Bogotá, Villavicencio, Medellín and Cartagena.

Pope Francis will visit four cities in Colombia over the coming days—Bogotá, Villavicencio, Medellín and Cartagena—in an all-out effort to promote reconciliation and to encourage efforts to overcome the social inequality, drug trafficking and corruption in the country.

Francis knows the country, having come here as a Jesuit priest, twice as bishop and six years ago as cardinal. In his video message, he told Colombians: “I am honored to visit this land so rich in history, culture, and faith. [It is a land] of men and women who have labored with tenacity and perseverance to make it a place where harmony and solidarity reign, where the Gospel is known and loved, and where saying ‘brother and sister’ seems not out of place but a true treasure to protect and defend.” He emphasized that “today’s world needs specialists in peace and dialogue” and said, “the church also is called to the task of promoting reconciliation, both with the Lord and between brothers, as well as reconciliation with the environment, which is God’s Creation and which we are savagely exploiting.”

“The visit is a pastoral, not a political one,” the Most Rev. José Octavio Ruiz Arenas, archbishop emeritus of Villavicencio, told the press on the eve of the visit. He said the visit “comes at a key moment in the peace process.” Archbishop Ruiz is currently a member of the Vatican’s office for the New Evangelization.

The peace accords between the government and FARC were signed in September 2016. A national referendum was held last October to vote for their acceptance, but the accords were rejected by the narrowest of margins (50.2 percent against 49.8 percent, with 63 percent abstaining). Many voters felt the state had given away too much in its negotiations with FARC, including immunity to its leadership. Significantly, the Colombian bishops’ conference was never so divided as it was on this issue.

Archbishop Ruiz recalled that despite the rejection in the referendum the president went ahead and signed the accord, and this created “a most serious problem” because the opposition deemed the accords illegitimate, claimed the president had betrayed the people whom he had wanted to hear from and who said “no.”

Pope Francis strongly supported the peace process but did not come out in favor of the specific accords to avoid the appearance of interfering in Colombia’s internal affairs.

Pope Francis strongly supported the peace process but did not come out in favor of the specific accords to avoid the appearance of interfering in Colombia’s internal affairs. Colombia’s former president, Álvaro Uribe, led the opposition to the accords, while President Santos advocated their approval.

After the referendum, Francis called both leaders to the Vatican on Dec. 16 and in a 40-minute conversation sought to get them to put the common good of the country above their party interests; but the political rivals continued as before, and a recent survey suggests that only 15 percent of the population agree with the terms of the accord.

Archbishop Ruiz said it is necessary to distinguish between the widespread desire among Colombians for peace and the signing of the peace accord, which is a political question. He emphasized that “it is not sufficient to sign a peace accord with a group, it’s necessary to fight to eliminate the causes that have provoked the violence in Colombia, otherwise other [armed] groups could rise up.”

Yerson, the commander of the E.L.N., is photographed Aug. 30 in the northwestern jungles of Colombia. (CNS photo/Federico Rios, Reuters) 

Colombia is a rich country, he said, “but most of the people live in poverty.” In terms of social inequality, it ranks second in Latin America and seventh in the world. Cocaine production, he said, has been a major reality in the country for years despite the government’s efforts to counteract it and the church’s condemnation of it.

In this context, he said, the motto of the visit, “Demos el primer paso,” encompasses not only promoting peace and reconciliation but also “transforming the social reality, to promote greater equality in the country” in the hope avoiding a recurrence of violence.

Francis is the third pope to visit Colombia, one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse countries in the world. Its territory includes Amazon rainforest and tropical grassland. Pope Paul VI came here in 1968 but only visited Bogotá. St. John Paul II went to 10 cities in 1986 including Bogotá, Medellín and Cartagena. But Francis is the only pope to go to Villavicencio, which was an epicenter of the civil conflict.

The pope will deliver five speeches, four homilies and two greetings and will recite the Angelus during his stay. He will step onto Colombian soil at CATAM military base, Bogotá, at 4 p.m. (local time) on Sept. 6. After a brief welcome ceremony, he will drive along the Avenida Eldorado to the apostolic nunciature (the Vatican embassy), where he will reside during his sojourn.

Francis is the third pope to visit Colombia, one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse countries in the world.

He will spend his first day (Sept. 7) in Bogotá, the country’s capital and largest city, known as “the heart of the Andes,” with a diverse and multicultural population of 8 million inhabitants. He will make a courtesy call to the president that morning and address the country’s political and civic authorities as well as the diplomatic corps. But Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said he does not plan to meet the political opposition or any paramilitary groups because he wants to remain neutral in advance of next year’s elections.

From the presidential palace, he will go to the cathedral and deliver a talk to the country’s 130 bishops, a speech that will be closely scrutinized. Francis is known for speaking frankly to ecclesial leaders, especially on his home turf of Latin America.

In the afternoon he will visit the headquarters of CELAM (The Bishops Conferences of Latin America), in the north of the city and address the presidents of all 22 bishops’ conferences of the region. Afterwards, he will celebrate Mass for an estimated one million faithful in Simon Bolivar park.

On the next morning, Sept. 8, the pope will fly to Villavicencio, a city of some 500,000 people, founded in 1840. Located in the mountainous region rich with agriculture, the area feeds the rest of the country. This city is the door to the Amazon and one of the regions most affected by the war on drug trafficking.

Francis will celebrate Mass here that morning and beatify the bishop of Arauca, Jesús Emilio Jaramillo, who was kidnapped, tortured and killed in Oct. 1989 in Medellín, and Father Pedro Maria Ramirez Ramos, who was killed in 1948 during a period of political unrest.

Francis will beatify the bishop of Arauca, Jesús Emilio Jaramillo, who was kidnapped, tortured and killed in Oct. 1989 in Medellín. 

Later in the day, he will participate in a service of prayer in remembrance of the victims of all the armed conflicts in Colombia’s history in which at least 8 million died. At the service, he will pray for peace and reconciliation in Colombia and meet victims from both sides of the recent armed conflict.

Since the political crisis started in Venezuela last April more than one million citizens of that country have emigrated to Colombia, and many are planning to line the route to greet the pope. It is not yet known if he will meet the Venezuelan bishops here. But he is scheduled to pray with and address the clergy, religious and seminarians in the city.

On Sept. 9, Francis will fly to Medellín, the country’s second largest city. This city and diocese paid a terrible price during the years of the internal conflict, and many priests, religious and catechists were killed, including Bishop Jesús Emilio Jaramillo and Isaias Duarte Cancino, the archbishop of Cali, in 2002. The cocaine cartels imposed their rule here generating much violence. But despite or perhaps because of this violence, Medellin is rich in vocations to the priesthood and religious life and sends missionaries to Africa, Asia and Europe.

Francis will celebrate Mass at the airport for an estimated one million faithful and visit the Hogar San José, an orphanage complex founded by a missionary priest in 1910 that is home to 1,100 orphans and young people.

On his last day in Colombia, Sept. 10, Francis will fly north to the Caribbean coast city of Cartagena, which has a population of almost one million people. Founded in 1533, it was a strategic port for the Spanish colonizers for the export of silver to Spain and for the import of Africans to be sold as slaves in the New World. It was the most important market for the buying and selling of slaves in the Americas. The Jesuit saint Peter Claver (1580-1654) spent most of his life here, dedicating himself entirely to help the slaves brought from Africa. He is buried here in the church that Francis will visit.

On Sept. 26, the peace accords between the government and the FARC were signed here in the presence of the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, in the square in front of the church where St. Peter Claver’s relics are kept. Francis will pray in the square with the faithful and then enter the church to venerate the saint’s relics and pray at his tomb before going to greet the Jesuit community.

Carlos Correa, S.J., the Jesuit provincial, told the local media that Cartagena “is a beautiful city on the one hand, but there is also much discrimination, much exclusion” of the Afro-Colombians with whom he works. He said the visit of Pope Francis “is very important, because he has the authority to speak of reconciliation and spiritual peace.”

Before returning to Rome, Pope Francis will celebrate Mass at the city’s port, and as he departs the Colombians will bid him farewell in a traditional carnival atmosphere at the airport of Rafael Nuñez de Cartagena.

It will be his fifth pastoral journey to Latin America since becoming pope and the seventh country in the region that he will visit after Brazil in 2013; Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay in 2014; and Cuba and Mexico in 2016.

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