by Tess Daniels
Pope Francis arrived in Colombia for a five-day visit earlier this month, determined to advocate reconciliation and forgiveness to the Colombian people, whose country has been bitterly divided for decades. The country has been torn apart by internal violence between government forces and guerilla militias, most notably the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Yet, in late 2016, the Colombian Congress approved peace accords with FARC. After a referendum for a similar deal failed earlier that year, the government reworked it and both houses of Congress, controlled overwhelmingly by President Juan Manuel Santos’s coalition, passed the deal. About 7,000 FARC rebels left the jungle and began the process of returning to civilian life. However, for many Colombian citizens, the conflict cannot be easily forgotten, and understandably so: an estimated 220,000 people were killed and about 6 million displaced through the decades of violence.
During his trip, Pope Francis did not voice direct support for the peace accords. However, at Casa de Nariño, the main workplace and home of the president, Francis expressed his “appreciation for all the efforts undertaken over the last decades to end armed violence and to seek out paths of reconciliation.” Throughout the trip, Francis continually asked the Colombian people to reflect on the roots of violence and begged them to be involved in the peace process. “Let us not forget that inequality is the root of social ills,” the Pope said in an address to local civil authorities. During a prayer service for national reconciliation, Francis urged the Colombian people to work towards a brighter future: “Violence leads to more violence, hatred to more hatred, death to more death. We must break this cycle!”
Francis’ visit to Colombia is the first papal trip to the country since Pope John Paul II’s 1986 visit. In contrast to John Paul’s journey to a war-torn, divided country, much of which was off-limits, Francis visited a country that is slowly forging a better state. Francis visited four cities in five days; major events of the trip included celebrating Mass in Bogotá and visiting Medellín and Cartagena. Francis also beatified Bishop Jesus Emilio Jaramillo Monsalve, who was murdered by Colombian Marxist guerrillas in 1989, and Father Pedro Maria Ramirez, who was killed at the start of the Colombian civil war in 1948.
Pope Francis’ visit, and the events surrounding it, signals that Colombia is ready to move on from its bitter past toward a more united future. On the Monday before the Pope’s visit, the National Liberation Army - the country’s second-largest rebel group after the FARC - agreed to a three-month cease-fire. On Friday, FARC announced its intentions to form a new political party. Francis’ repeated message of reconciliation is also affecting the country’s leaders. For instance, notorious guerilla leader Rodrigo Londoño, commander of the FARC, sent a letter to the pontiff: “Your repeated messages about God’s infinite mercy move me to plead for your forgiveness for any tears or pain that we have caused to the people of Colombia.” The government said that as many as five million Colombians attended Francis’ events, noting that during his time in the country homicides dropped around 60 percent. As his visit concluded, Francis tweeted this advice: “I encourage world leaders to set aside partisan and ideological interests and seek together the common good of all humanity.”