ROME—Finally putting an end to rumors and speculations, the Vatican confirmed today that Pope Francis will be going to Colombia in September, to help the country further cement the peace accords signed by the government and the FARC rebel group, a further step in putting to rest a five-decade old civil conflict.
“Accepting the invitation of the President of the Republic and the Colombian bishops, His Holiness the Pope Francis will make an Apostolic Trip to Colombia from 6 to 11 September 2017, visiting the cities of Bogotá, Villavicencio, Medellín and Cartagena,” a Vatican statement released on Friday said.
Archbishop Ettore Balestrero, papal representative in Colombia and Cardinal Rubén Salazar Gómez of Bogota, together with President Juan Manuel Santos, held a press conference in Colombia as the news was being announced in Rome.
“The pope wants to come to the encounter with Colombians, he’s coming for those who are in the cities and in the countryside and who have a different culture and needs; for the rich and the poor, for the young and the elderly,” Balestrero said.
“Undoubtedly, these will be days of grace, salvation for the country,” Salazar Gómez said. “The motto of the visit will be ‘Let us take the first step’.”
The country, the cardinal said, will leave behind all its history of “violence, war, fighting [behind], to start walking together.”
“Knowing that he’s coming exclusively to Colombia, and that he’ll do so to bring us a voice of support to Colombians is a privilege that fills us with gratitude,” Santos said. “Those of us Colombians who profess the Catholic faith rejoice, but so do those who see in him and his words the spiritual leader of our time.”
Francis, Santos said, pushed the country to persevere in the search for peace, and he’ll arrive in a unique moment in the country’s history, to appeal for “unity, reconciliation, forgiveness, and above all, encounter.”
Encounter with “the teachings of Jesus,” and among Colombians, “as a society, as humans, as children of God.”
Pope Francis has spoken about wanting to visit this country since early on in his pontificate. Last year, coming back from his trip to Georgia and Azerbaijan, he said that he’d visit Colombia only when the peace process is complete.
“I said that when the peace process in Colombia is complete, I want to go, when everything is ‘bulletproof,’ that is – if the plebiscite succeeds – when everything is for sure, when there’s no turning back, that is, when the international world, all the nations, are in agreement that there’s no appeal, that everything is finished, I could go,” the pontiff said.
The plebiscite, in which the Colombian people had to vote yes or no to the original arrangement signed by the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC, failed with the “no” winning. Since then, a new agreement has been signed, and was approved by Colombia’s Congress on November 30.
Negotiations with the country’s second largest guerrilla group, the ELN, are still ongoing.
On December 16, Santos and former president Alvaro Uribe, the leader of the Colombian opposition who didn’t agree with the peace treaty, met with Francis at the Vatican, in a mediation effort from history’s first Latin American pope.
In what was his third visit to the Vatican, Santos appealed to the Pope for support in ending a 52-year war that has killed more than 220,000 people and displaced millions.
According to Human Rights Watch, Colombia has the world’s second largest population of internally displaced people, with Syria heading the list. An estimated 6.8 million people have been forcibly displaced in the past decades.
“We need your help,” Santos said back in December. On the occasion, the president gave the pope a gift of a pen made from a machine gun bullet.
It seems the help will arrive in the form of a visit on September.
This will be the third time a pope visits Colombia, after Paul VI did so in 1968 and John Paul II in 1986.