VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ efforts to consolidate Colombia’s peace process with a five-day visit produced a result even before the trip began: a cease-fire between the government and the country’s last major rebel group.
Francis is sure to hail the cease-fire with the National Liberation Army, or ELN, when he arrives in Bogota on Wednesday, seeing it as another major step forward in Colombia’s path of reconciliation after five decades of bloody conflict.
Even before the deal, Francis had a full plate in seeking to help heal the wounds of Latin America’s longest-running conflict while advancing his own pastoral agenda. On tap for his 20th foreign trip are expected messages promoting care for the environment, denouncing the drug trade and urging Colombia’s political class to address the economic and social disparities that were at the root of the fighting.
“We certainly can’t expect magic solutions from the pope,” said Guzman Carriquiry, a top Vatican adviser on Latin America. “But the true causes of the violence must be confronted if they want a true pacification in Colombia.”
While his focus will be on Colombia, Francis will also be pressed to address the political and humanitarian crisis in neighboring Venezuela, where the Vatican tried but failed to facilitate talks between the opposition and what local Catholic leaders have declared the “dictatorship” of President Nicolas Maduro.
Here’s a look at what to expect during Francis’ trip, the third to Colombia by a pope.
In the final drive of peace talks between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Francis laid out a public challenge to negotiators who were meeting Cuba: “Please, we do not have the right to allow ourselves yet another failure on this path of peace and reconciliation,” Francis begged them in 2015 from Havana’s Revolution Square.
He followed up with a promise: Once an accord was signed and sealed, he would visit the overwhelmingly Catholic country to help solidify it.
Francis is making good on that with this trip, hoping to promote reconciliation between victims of the conflict and those who victimized them. That could be a tall order, given the divisions that doomed a 2016 popular referendum on the initial peace accord and remain today after a revised agreement was approved by Congress last year.
One of the highlights of the trip will be a reconciliation meeting in the central city of Villavicencio, near a longtime rebel stronghold.
CARING FOR CREATION
Francis could hardly travel to the edge of the Amazon without making a strong appeal for responsible stewardship of the planet, given that environmentalism has been a priority of his pontificate.
That’s especially true since vast swaths of Colombia’s rainforest and mining areas that were inaccessible due to the conflict — and therefore protected — are now ripe for development and exploitation.
The first Latin American pope has often lamented that the world’s poorest and indigenous people typically suffer the most when multinationals move in and disrupt delicate ecosystems.
Francis is expected to speak about the environment and his 2015 encyclical “Laudato Sii” (“Praise Be”), which warned that today’s “structurally perverse” economic system risks turning Earth into an “immense pile of filth.”
CONFLICT NEXT DOOR
The Vatican says no official audiences are planned between Francis and Venezuela’s bishops, who will be gathering along with their confreres from across the continent for a regional meeting with the pope in Bogota, the Colombian capital. But it will be hard for him to ignore the thousands of Venezuelan refugees who have streamed across the border to escape food and medicine shortages, spiraling inflation, violent political protests and one of the world’s highest homicide rates.
The Vatican had initially sought to toe a neutral line on Venezuela when it was facilitating talks between the government and opposition that ultimately failed.
That neutrality went out the door Aug. 4, when the Vatican refused to recognize a new, all-powerful, pro-Maduro constitutional assembly and called for its suspension because it was “fomenting a climate of tension and confrontation.” The Vatican demanded that all sides — “and in particular the government” — respect basic human rights and Venezuela’s existing constitution.
THE IMPORTANCE OF MEDELLIN
Before it became infamous for its murderous drug cartels, Colombia’s second city of Medellin was famous in Catholic circles for hosting a 1968 meeting of regional bishops that defined what it meant to be Catholic in Latin America.
The meeting, opened by Pope Paul VI in the first-ever papal visit to Latin America, endorsed as the church’s guiding mission the “preferential option for the poor.”
Francis, an Argentine Jesuit, was trained as a priest in that environment and has clearly taken it to heart, making the poor and society’s outcasts the focus of his ministry. As a result he will likely refer to Medellin’s historic significance for the church in his native continent.
“Medellin is a huge symbol in terms of defining the church in Latin America,” said Rafael Luciani, a theology professor at the Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas.
‘SLAVE OF THE SLAVES’
Francis’ final day in Colombia will in many ways be his most personal: He will honor a fellow Jesuit, St. Peter Claver, the 17th-century Spanish missionary whose ministry to African slaves arriving on ships in the Spanish colonial port of Cartagena earned him the admiration of popes and human rights campaigners for centuries.
Francis is due to pray at Claver’s tomb and lay the foundation for new homes for the homeless in a poor neighborhood of Cartagena.
Claver, who declared himself the “slave of the slaves forever,” could also provide Francis with a powerful jumping-off point to reflect on racism, discrimination and the enduring legacy of African slavery in the Americas.
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