As Pope Francis heads to Colombia, he faces a high-wire act

As Pope Francis heads to Colombia, he faces a high-wire act

Pope Francis heads off today for a five-day visit to Colombia, Latin America's third most populous state and one of its most fervently Catholic countries. The pontiff will have to pull off a delicate balance, strongly endorsing a peace process to end a decades-long armed conflict but keeping some distance from controversial peace deals that Colombian critics believe give too much impunity to rebel groups for the violence.

ROME – Pope Francis heads to Colombia today, for what will be his fifth visit to Latin America since being elected in March 2013. It’s a sensitive outing, as he’ll have to navigate the difference between supporting a peace process to end a decades-long civil war and maintaining a critical distance from highly controversial agreements signed between the government and guerrilla groups.

Though he’s expected to avoid addressing Colombia’s recent peace agreements specifically, there’s no doubt about his main topic:

The Sept. 6-11 outing will see Francis visit four different cities, beginning with the capital of Colombia, Bogotáfrom where he’ll fly off each day for day trips to Villavicencio, Medellin and Cartagena. Afterwards, he’ll fly back to Rome on the 10th, arriving the following day.

The invitation for Francis to visit the country came early in his pontificate, but he delayed accepting until, as he put it, a stable peace agreement was more or less in place.

“He had wanted to go for a long time. Now the moment has come,” said American Greg Burke, the Vatican’s spokesman, addressing journalists on Monday.

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The motto for the trip is, “Let us take the first step” towards reconciliation. According to Francis, the theme serves as a reminder that “it’s always necessary to take the first step for any project or activity.

“It also pushes us to be the first to love, to create bridges, to create brotherhood,” he said, adding that to take the first step also “encourages us to go to the encounter of others and to extend a hand, and to give each other the sign of peace.”

The pope’s words came in a video message in which he addresses all Colombians, saying he feels “honored” to visit a land that is “rich in history, culture, faith,”  with “men and women who have worked with determination and perseverance so that it may be a place where harmony and brotherhood reign.”

Speaking in Spanish, as he’ll do throughout the trip, Francis previewed many of the 12 addresses he’ll give: From the importance of working together to secure a lasting peace, to the need to protect “God’s creation, which we’re exploiting in a savage way.”

RELATED: Ahead of papal visit, Colombia signs peace deal with last remaining guerrilla group

Each day of the visit will have its own theme, all chosen because they embody issues close to the pope’s heart: “Builders of Peace, Promoters of Life,” in Bogotá; “Reconciliation with God, among Colombians and with Nature” in Villavicencio; “The Christian Vocation and Apostolate” in Medellin; and “The Dignity of People and Human Rights” in Cartagena.

Bogotá, Builders of Peace

Here, Francis will make the usual stops he makes in every foreign trip: He’ll speak to government officials, pay a courtesy visit to Santos and meet the local bishops, who’ve played a key role in the reconciliation process, and the pope is bound to encourage them to continue down this path.

Francis will also meet with the leadership of the Latin American Conference of Catholic Bishops (CELAM). A group of them will be from Venezuela. There have been reports both in Colombian and Venezuelan media about a possible private meeting between Francis and the bishops of the crisis-ridden country, yet papal spokesman Burke said that such a meeting is not on the agenda.

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Francis will also say Mass in Simon Bolivar Park, where over 700,000 people are expected.

Each day, before the Mass and then as he goes back to the Apostolic Nunciature, the home of the papal representative in the country where he’ll be staying through the visit, Francis will be received by a group of people who embody the theme of the day.

On Thursday, he’ll meet with people who have either physical or mental disabilities, as well as young people with Down Syndrome. On Wednesday, the day of his arrival, a group of homeless will be waiting for him at the nunciature, meaning the residence of the pope’s ambassador in the country.

Villavicencio, Reconciliation

On Sept. 8, the pope will head to the southern Colombian city of Villavicencio, a city of the “peripheries,” in the heart of one of the regions most affected by the war. He’ll say Mass, and also participate in a national prayer of reconciliation.

The reconciliation Francis will call for on Friday will not only be among Colombians, but also with God and his creation.

According to many observers, the city represents a side of the country ignored for decades — forgotten, purposely under-populated, and beaten down by violence.

It also represents the gateway to a biodiverse Colombia, hosting a section of Latin America’s Amazonia, which the local Church is actively trying to preserve, answering calls to protect the environment issued by Pope Francis and by his predecessor, Benedict XVI.

The first item on the agenda is the beatification Mass for Bishop Jesus Jaramillo and Father Pedro Ramos. The first, the late bishop of Arauca, was a vocal critic of the violence of ELN, who kidnapped him in 1989 and shot him twice in the head. Ramos was beaten with sticks and beheaded with a machete in 1949 by an angry mob hostile to the Catholic Church, which they accused of being aligned with conservatives.

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Despite the significance of the Mass, most of the day’s attention will be in the “Big Meeting for Prayer and National Reconciliation” at the Las Malocas Park.  An estimated 6,000 people will attend, among them former guerrilla fighters, ex-military fighters and victims of the violence.

In Villavicencio, a city located between the Andes and the Amazon, Francis will also appeal to Colombians to reconcile with nature, probably mentioning some of the ills that affect the Amazon, often described as the Lungs of the World: Deforestation and illegal mining. In an attempt to drive the point home, Francis will plant a tree while here. In addition, the Vatican will plant another 1,000.

Back in the nunciature, he’ll meet with a group of victims of Colombia’s violence and their relatives.

Medellin, Emphasis on Christian Vocation

On his third day in Latin America’s third most populous state, and also one of its most fervently Catholic, Francis will fly to Medellin — once the world’s most violent city and capital of the kingdom of drug dealer Pablo Escobar, and today home to a thriving social entrepreneurship scene.

The city is also a hub for religious vocations, boasting over 1,300 priests, while Cali, a city with virtually the same number of inhabitants, has only 230. For this reason, it’s known as Colombia’s Catholic capital.

While in Medellin, the pope will have an encounter with an estimated 12,000 priests, men and women religious, consecrated persons, seminarians and their families in the La Macarena indoor stadium.

According to Colombia’s Bishop Luis Manuel Alí Herrera, during his time in Medellin Francis will focus especially on religious vocations.

Cartagena, Emphasis on Human Rights

On the day he heads back to Rome, the pope will visit the coastal city of Cartagena, once upon a time the biggest slave-trading port in Latin America.

Francis will be here on Sept. 10, a day after the feast of St. Peter Claver, a Jesuit priest who’s also the patron of Colombia. Claver dedicated his life to helping slaves, earning himself the nickname “the slave of the slaves.”

Francis will visit Claver’s home and a sanctuary dedicated to the saint, from where he’ll pray the traditional noontime Angelus prayer and deliver his weekly Sunday address.

At the airport, he’ll be welcomed by some 300 people, who will perform traditional dancing for him.

Here, Francis will visit some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods in his popemobile, bless the first stone for a house for the homeless and visit the house for female victims of human trafficking, slavery and forced prostitution run by “Talitha Kum,” an international network of religious sisters who fight this illegal industry.

RELATED: Comboni nun answers ‘scream of pain’ of human trafficking victims

The pope is expected again to issue a plea against this illegal industry, which he’s called “an aberrant plague.”

As always, Francis is expected to deliver his usual in-flight news conference on the way home.

Fast facts about the pope’s trip

  • With 48.6 million people, Colombia is Latin America’s third most populous nation after Brazil and Mexico.
  • Over 90 percent of Colombians declare themselves to be Catholics.
  • This will be Francis’s fifth trip to Latin America, and the third trip for a pope to Colombia.
  • Over 30,000 members of Colombia’s police force will be deployed during the visit.
  • An estimated 4.5 million people will see the pope during one of the events or along the 25 miles he’ll ride in the popemobile.

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