VILLAVICENCIO, Colombia — In a country, and a continent, often infamous for chauvinistic attitudes towards women, Pope Francis called Colombians on it Friday, insisting that the Gospel story itself is a powerful commentary on a world in which “psychological, verbal and physical violence towards women is so evident.”
Overcoming that violence, Francis told Colombians, is also key to the sort of full reconciliation that recovery from the country’s long-running civil war requires.
“In communities where we are still weighed down with patriarchal and chauvinistic customs, it is good to note that the Gospel begins by highlighting women who were influential and made history,” Pope Francis said.
During the decades long civil war, women borne the brunt of the secondary effects of the conflict. They were subjugated by the guerrillas, forced to avoid pregnancies at all cost, have abortions and many forced to prostitute themselves. Gender violence towards the women who were part of the guerrilla groups-representing 40 percent of the total- was common currency, both within the ranks and perpetrated by the Colombian military.
Pope Francis’s words came during his homily at a Mass he celebrated in Villavicencio, a city of the “peripheries,” in the heart of one of the regions most affected by the war. This is the second day of the pope’s visit to Colombia, and it’s centered on the theme “Reconciliation with God, among Colombians and with Nature.”
Reflecting on the passage of the Gospel of Matthew that details the genealogy of Jesus, Francis said that it’s not a “simple list of names,” but a “’living history,’ the history of the people that God journeyed with; by making himself one of us, God wanted to announce that the history of the just and of the sinners runs through his blood, that our salvation is not a sterile entity found in a laboratory, but rather something concrete, a life that moves forward.”
The long list of names, the pope said, grounds humanity, as a reminder that it’s part of a vast history. On the other hand, it also integrates into the history of salvation the pages that are “the darkest and saddest.”
The mention of women, Francis said, “allows us a particular rapprochement: it is they, in the genealogy, who tell us that pagan blood runs through the veins of Jesus, and who recall the stories of scorn and subjugation.”
Here Francis talked about the significance of highlighting the role of women in history. In Colombia, but also throughout the Latin American continent, “machismo” has often weighed down the role of women, and by highlighting the role of women as influential and history makers, he’s challenging it.
And within this genealogy, the pope said, there are Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Mary, whose generous yes allowed God to take charge of that history. The Mother of God knew how to transmit his light, reflecting it in her home and in those around her, but also in her country and creation.
This image is a continuation of a key theme for Francis, that of women being the ones who transmit the faith.
Pope Francis told Colombians they too write genealogies full of stories, many of which are of love, while many others of “disagreement, insults, even of death.”
Francis acknowledged that many Colombians can speak of exile and grief. Many women, he said, persevered alone and in silence, while many men tried to put aside resentment, hoping to bring together justice and kindness.
“How can we best allow the light in?” he asked. “What are the true paths of reconciliation? Like Mary, by saying yes to the whole of history, not just to a part of it. Like Joseph, by putting aside our passions and pride. Like Jesus Christ, by taking hold of that history, assuming it, embracing it.”
That, he said, is who Colombians are, and where they can find their identity.
“God can do all this if we say yes to truth, to goodness, to reconciliation, if we fill our history of sin, violence and rejection with the light of the Gospel,” he said.
The pope’s words drew strong applause at several points.
From this point on, the pope focused mostly on reconciliation, which he said means opening the door to every person who’s experienced the “tragic” reality of conflict. According to Francis, when victims overcome the “understandable temptation of vengeance,” they become the most credible voices in the process of building peace.
The importance, he said, is for someone to “courageously” take the first step towards reconciliation.
“We need only one good person to have hope! Each one of us can be that person!” Francis added.
Addressing an issue that’s been at the core of a popular vote rejecting the peace agreement the government signed with the country’s largest guerrilla group last year, Francis said that reconciliation does not mean ignoring differences or conflict, nor is it about legitimizing injustices, either personal or structural.
“Reconciliation cannot merely serve to accommodate unjust situations,” he said.
Last but not least, Pope Francis urged Colombians to reconcile with the natural environment, saying that it’s not by chance that even when it comes to nature humanity has unleashed its desire to possess and subjugate.
Villavicencio represents the gateway of a biodiverse Colombia, hosting a section of Latin America’s Amazon, often described as one of the world’s lungs. It was also one of the epicenters of the country’s civil war.
During the Mass, the pontiff also declared the victims of the guerrillas as martyrs, meaning they’re one step closer to being recognized as saints: Monsignor Jesús Emilio Jaramillo Monsalve, Bishop of Arauca, and Father Pedro María Ramírez Ramos.
Francis described them as an expression of a country that wants to “rise up out of the swamp of violence and bitterness.”
Jaramillo was a local critic of the violence of the National Liberation Army (ELN), who kidnapped him in 1989 and shot him twice in the head. Ramos was beaten with sticks and beheaded with a machete in 1948.
After the Mass, in the sacristy, Pope Francis planned to meet a group of victims of a recent flood that affected the nearby city of Mocoa, and give their bishops a monetary contribution.
Later in the day, Francis is scheduled to lead a “Grand 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, and victims of violence.
Before heading back to Bogotá for the night, the Argentine pontiff is scheduled to pray in front of the Cross of Reconciliation, located in the local Parque de los Fundadores.
The pontiff arrived by plane from Bogotá, the capital city, for Friday’s events in Villavicencio. He was greeted on the airport tarmac by a line of children wearing indigenous dress, who sang for the pontiff. Francis spent time greeting each one of them personally, at one point putting on a scarf and wearing it that had been given to him by a small boy wearing a sombrero vueltiao, a traditional local hat.
At another point, Francis briefly donned a sombrero vueltiao himself.
Before heading off to the Mass, Francis spent a few minutes with about 400 members of the Colombian military, police, military chaplains, and others involved in providing security for his Sept. 6-11 visit.
“Thanks for all you’re doing for this trip,” he said, “and above all, thanks for what you do for peace.”