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Gerard O’ConnellSeptember 10, 2017
Pope Francis celebrates Mass at Contecar terminal in Cartagena, Colombia, Sept. 10. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

As he concluded his five-day visit to Colombia to promote peace and reconciliation, Pope Francis made a final, passionate appeal to the inhabitants of this majority Catholic country: “Be slaves of peace, forever!”  
He issued his appeal during a Mass attended by 800,000 people and the country’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, and other civil and political authorities, in the port area of Cartagena. The area was decorated with strikingly colorful flower arrangements (Colombia is the world’s number one flower producer) and the Mass included rhythmic, enchanting music and song.

Francis formulated his appeal by creatively reframing the motto of St. Peter Claver, who described himself as “the slave of the slaves, forever.”

The motto for Francis’ visit was, “Let us take the first step.” As he prepared to leave this country of 49 million people, in which four million attended his Masses and many others came out on the streets in support—he did not want that dynamic to be lost. And so he told them, “let us not be content with “taking the first step,” instead, “let us continue our journey anew each day, going forth to encounter others and to encourage concord and fraternity. We cannot just stand still.”

He recalled that Saint Peter Claver, who died here on Sept. 8, 1654, “after 40 years of voluntary slavery, of tireless work on behalf of the poor, did not stand still.” His first step inspired others to reach out to their neighbors, the pope said, and it should do so today, he reminded the people of Colombia, “because your brothers and sisters need you.”

In a powerful farewell message, Pope Francis appealed to the Christians of this beautiful land, “Go out to meet them. Bring them the embrace of peace, free of all violence. Be ‘slaves of peace, forever.’”

His visit here has been an enormous success, and as he left Bogota this morning thousands of people turned out very early to say goodbye as he drove the 15 kilometer route from the city to the airport.

In his homily, Francis also recalled that Cartagena, the fifth largest city in the country, is called “heroic” because of its tenacity in defending the country’s independence and freedom 200 years ago. And in 1985, Congress declared Cartagena the headquarters in Colombia for human rights because, the pope said, “the people cherish the fact that, thanks to the missionary team formed by the Jesuit priests Peter Claver y Corberó, Alonso de Sandoval and Brother Nicolás González, accompanied by many citizens of the city of Cartagena de Indias in the seventeenth century, the desire was born to alleviate the situation of the oppressed of that time, especially of slaves, of those who implored fair treatment and freedom.”   

In a powerful farewell message, Pope Francis appealed to the Christians of this beautiful land, “Go out to meet them. Bring them the embrace of peace, free of all violence. Be ‘slaves of peace, forever.’”

Drawing on the Gospel of the day, Francis emphasized that “a sin committed by one person challenges us all, but involves, primarily, the victim of someone’s sin. He or she is called to take the initiative so that whoever has caused the harm is not lost.”

He said that in these days he heard many testimonies “from those who have reached out to people who had harmed them,” and so “have taken a first step on a different path to the one already travelled” in this land.

“For decades,” he said, “Colombia has yearned for peace but, as Jesus teaches, two sides approaching each other to dialogue is not enough; it has also been necessary to involve many more actors in this dialogue aimed at healing sins.”  

Perhaps as a word of advice, he told them, “History shows that these ways of making peace, of placing reason above revenge, of the delicate harmony between politics and law, cannot ignore the involvement of the people.” In other words, a public consensus must be developed, something that has yet to happen in Colombia but which, perhaps, his visit may help make possible.

In his much applauded homily, Francis reminded everyone that “peace is not achieved by normative frameworks and institutional arrangements between well-intentioned political or economic groups.” On the other hand, “Jesus finds the solution to the harm inflicted through a personal encounter between the parties.”  In addition, he said, “it is always helpful to incorporate into our peace processes the experience of those sectors that have often been overlooked, so that communities themselves can influence the development of collective memory.”

In what seemed like a suggestion to create a Truth and Reconcilation Commission in Colombia, Francis told them that “deep, historic wounds necessarily require moments where justice is done, where victims are given the opportunity to know the truth, where damage is adequately repaired and clear commitments are made to avoid repeating those crimes.”

But, he added, “that is only the beginning of the Christian response. We are required to generate “from below” a change in culture: so that we respond to the culture of death and violence, with the culture of life and encounter.”  It is a process that he sought to encourage this week.

He told those present that Jesus commands us to confront “those ways of living that damage society and destroy the community.” He said Saint Peter Claver was able to restore hope to the people he served not because of academic qualifications, but because “he had the genius to live the Gospel to the full, to meet those whom others considered merely as waste material.”

Pope Francis here repeated what he had said to the United Nations, Sept. 25, 2015: “The common home of all men and women must continue to rise on the foundations of a right understanding of universal fraternity and respect for the sacredness of every human life, of every man and every woman, the poor, the elderly, children, the infirm, the unborn, the unemployed, the abandoned, those considered disposable because they are only considered as part of a statistic. This common home of all men and women must also be built on the understanding of a certain sacredness of created nature.”

Francis paid tribute to “all those who, bravely and tirelessly, have worked and even lost their lives in defending and protecting the rights and the dignity of the human person.”  Today, he said, “history asks us to embrace a definitive commitment to defending human rights.”

Finally, he said, “Jesus asks us to pray together...for the rescue of those who were wrong and not for their destruction, for justice and not revenge, for healing in truth and not for oblivion.”

He asked them to pray to fulfil the theme of this visit: “Let us take the first step!”

Francis said that “the demand is to build peace” and to pray together “because the Lord is able to untie that which seems impossible to us, and he has promised to accompany us to the end of time, and will bring to fruition all our efforts.”

The 800,000 at the Mass stood and applauded when he finished speaking.  Less than two hours later, before he took the plane back to Rome, they gave him a festive farewell with a spectacular performance of traditional dance and music.  And he seemed to enjoy every moment of it.  

Gerard O'Connell


In Cartagena, Pope Francis affirms rights and dignity of the excluded and downtrodden

On this, his last day in Colombia, Pope Francis visited Cartagena, a city in the north of Colombia on the Caribbean coast city, to affirm by word and action the dignity of the human person and human rights and the need for total commitment to work for reconciliation and peace in this land.

He was given an enthusiastic welcome on arrival at Cartagena airport, with traditional song and dance, and was presented with a big Colombian hat to protect him from the sun in this city where the humidity registered 91 percent today.

The city, which today has a population of almost one million people, many of them descendants from African slaves, was founded in 1533, and known as Cartagena de Indias in the colonial era. It was a strategic port for the Spanish colonizers, for the export of silver from Peru to Spain and for the import of men and women from Africa, who were captured and brought here as prisoners, to be sold as slaves in the New World.  

From the airport, Francis drove in his popemobile to visit a poor neighborhood of the city, where he blessed the first stones of two institutions that will be built: one will offer a home to homeless people, and the other will house work of the Talitha Kum, an international network of the consecrated life, that helps the victims of human trafficking. Francis feels very strongly about these problem and has made the combatting of human trafficking a priority of his pontificate.     

While in this neighborhood, he also visited the house of a woman, Mrs. Lorenza, who daily welcomes people in need, providing them with food and affection.

St. Peter Claver “witnessed in a formidable way to the responsibility and care that we should have for one another,” Pope Francis said.

As he continued his journey, a cheering crowd ran alongside his popemobile and at one point forced it to brake suddenly, causing the pope to hit his head against one of the upright metal bars, resulting in an injury over his left eyebrow and cheekbone.  After medical treatment, he was fine and continued his drive to the plaza of San Francesco, which is in front of the Jesuit church of St. Peter Claver.

The plaza is inside this walled city which, in the 1600s, was the most important market for the buying and selling of slaves in the Americas. In the midst of these crimes against humanity, the Spanish Jesuit, Peter Claver (1580-1654), stood out. He spent 40 years of his life here, dedicated to helping the slaves brought from Africa and blazing a path, inspired by the Gospel, to affirm and defend their human rights. He also died here.

Pope Francis has spoken about St. Peter Claver several times during his visit here, and he did so again today before reciting the Angelus with thousands of people gathered in the square in front of the church. He recalled that the saint used to wait for the ships from Africa that brought the men and women forced into slavery to what was then the main center of commerce in slavery in the New World. Peter Claver could not speak their language, but he used “the language of charity and mercy” that was understood by all. Francis said St. Peter Claver “was austere and charitable to the point of heroism.” The pope said the saint spent the last four years of his life in sickness and confined to his cell, which was in a terrible state of neglect.  St. Peter Claver “witnessed in a formidable way to the responsibility and care that we should have for one another,” he said, but he was “unjustly accused” and “faced strong criticism and persistent opposition from those who feared that his ministry would undermine the lucrative slave trade.”

Moving from the 16th century to the present day, Francis stated that today in Colombia, and in the world, “millions of people are still being sold as slaves; they either beg for some expressions of humanity, moments of tenderness, or they flee by sea or land because they have lost everything, primarily their dignity and their rights.”

He said that saints like Peter Claver “invite us to work to promote the dignity of all our brothers and sisters, particularly the poor and the excluded of society, those who are abandoned, immigrants and those who suffer violence and human trafficking.” Moreover, he reminded everyone that “they all have human dignity because they are living images of God.”

After reciting the Angelus, Pope Francis prayed for each of the countries of Latin America, and “in a special way for neighboring Venezuela.”

After reciting the Angelus, Pope Francis prayed for each of the countries of Latin America, and “in a special way for neighboring Venezuela.” He expressed his “closeness to all the sons and daughters of that beloved nation, as well as to all those who have found a place of welcome here in Colombia.”  

He was referring to the more than one million Venezuelans who have emigrated here since the political and economic crisis in that country gravely deteriorated earlier this year.

Pope Francis is deeply concerned about the situation in Venezuela today, and so he concluded with this new appeal: “From this city, known as the seat of human rights, I appeal for the rejection of all violence in political life and for a solution to the current grave crisis, which affects everyone, particularly the poorest and most disadvantaged of society.”

When he finished speaking, he blessed the people and then entered the church, accompanied by Father Carlos Correa, the Jesuit provincial. More than 300 people of African-Columbian heritage were present. The provincial led the pope to the chapel where the relics of St. Peter Claver are preserved in a glass coffin. Francis placed a bouquet of white flowers before the reliquary and then sat and prayed in silence. Afterwards, he went into the internal courtyard, where he greeted representatives of the Jesuit community here.  On all his foreign trips, he meets the communities of Jesuits working in these countries.  

Fr. Correa later told the local media that Cartagena “is a beautiful city on the one hand, but there is also much discrimination, much exclusion,” and it is important to let the pope know this, and to say that “in this country we need to recognize the Afro-Colombians, and value them much more.” For the Jesuits, he said, the visit of Pope Francis “is very important, because he has the authority to speak of reconciliation and spiritual peace.”

Later today, Pope Francis will celebrate his fourth and final Mass in Colombia before taking the plane back to Rome. Some 300,000 will attend the Mass, assisted by 2,000 young volunteers.


Pope suffers slight injury, but continues on in good spirits

Pope Francis suffered a slight injury over his left eye when his popemobile braked suddenly as the crowd sought to move closer to him during his visit to Cartagena, in the north of Colombia, where he is receiving an enthusiastic welcome.

Greg Burke, Vatican spokesman, said at 11:00 a.m. local time, "The pope is fine" but has "a bruise on his cheekbone and eyebrow." Burke said the pope hit his face on the popemobile and is receiving ice treatment. Video of the incident shows Pope Francis hitting his head against one of the upright bars of the popemobile, causing blood to flow over his left eye onto his white cassock. His chief bodyguard, General Domenico Gianni, rushed to his aid and wiped the blood with a handkerchief. The pope then received medical treatment, and an icepack was applied. He is now continuing his visit wearing a slight plaster over his left eye.

Pope Francis looks to be in very good spirits, despite his accident, as he drives in his popemobile to the square of San Francesco, in front of the church where the relics of the St. Peter Claver, the Jesuit known as slave of the slaves, are kept.


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