BOGOTA, Colombia— In his first official speech in Colombia, Pope Francis told the country it’s not alone in trying to leave decades of violence behind, and that only through faith and hope will the nation overcome the challenges of building a society that’s “a motherland and home to all.”
He urged the nation to avoid the temptation of vengeance, and to continue working on a culture of encounter despite the challenges they might face in Colombia’s path to a lasting peace.
In a vintage Francis touch, the pope also implied that merely persuading participants in the conflict, which stretched over five decades and is estimated to have claimed 220,000 lives, isn’t sufficient to guarantee peace unless the root causes of frustration are addressed.
“Let us not forget that inequality is the root of social ills,” the pope said addressing the local civil authorities on Thursday.
Francis made a clear, if indirect, reference to the peace agreements brokered between the Government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the country’s two largest guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN).
The first in particular remains highly controversial, passed by Congress even though an earlier version was rejected by popular vote last year.
“This meeting allows me to express my appreciation for all the efforts undertaken over the last decades to end armed violence and to seek out paths of reconciliation,” Francis said at Casa de Nariño, the official home and principal workplace of the President of Colombia.
“Over the past year, significant progress has been made; the steps taken give rise to hope, in the conviction that seeking peace is an endeavor that has been open, a task which does not relent, which demands the commitment of everyone.”
Francis also acknowledged that seeking paths of building peace in Colombia is an endeavor that challenges the country not to abandon its efforts to build unity, despite the “obstacles, differences and varying perspectives on the way to achieve peaceful coexistence.”
The struggle to promote a “culture of encounter,” he continued, “requires the human person to be put at the center of all political, social and economic activity.
“May this determination help us flee from the temptation of vengeance and the satisfaction of short-term partisan interests,” he said, a reference many locals took to be addressed to former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who’s been outspoken against the deal with the FARC.
Though Santos arrived in the presidency as a protégé of Uribe, the two have since parted ways. Last year, the pope welcomed them both at the Vatican, urging them to dialogue. However, little progress was made at the time.
Uribe, along with many others, argues that the deal with the FARC isn’t tough enough on the rebels, since it doesn’t include opposition demands that they serve traditional jail sentences and be barred from forming political parties. The FARC announced in recent days the creation of their own political party.
The agreement has proved highly divisive, with a popular referendum rejecting it by a 51-49 margin. However, many of those who voted “yes” did so not because they thought the agreement wasn’t flawed, but because, having had first-hand experience of the violence perpetrated by the guerrilla groups, they know that compromises have to be made in order to move forward.
One of those looking ahead is Juan Jose Florian, a former member of Colombia’s army, who was hit by an explosive and lost his hands, his right leg and the sight from his right eye. Florian is today Colombia’s para-cycling champion, and earlier in the year he took part in the sport’s world cup, held in Holland.
On Wednesday, he was one of the victims of the war and people with disabilities who greeted the pope right after he landed in Bogota. Speaking to a local network on Thursday, he said that as he was waiting for his time to greet the pope to come, he wasn’t sure how he’d do so, since he couldn’t extend his hands to Francis.
The pope solved it for him, giving him a hug.
Despite the damage the explosives did to his body, Florian said the experience actually turned him into a more positive man, who is full of goals. Francis’s hug, he said, was a reminder that there’s no gain in feeling “hatred and resentment,” and that overcoming these feelings is what will allow him to transcend.
According to local authorities, an estimated two million people so far have welcomed Francis along the nine-mile pope-mobile route to the residence he’s staying in while in Colombia.
On Thursday morning, addressing civil authorities, the pope said that the more demanding the path towards peace, “the greater must be our efforts to acknowledge each other, to heal wounds, to build bridges, to strengthen relationships and support one another.”
As he often does in such speeches when abroad, he also praised the country’s natural beauty, in this case signaling that “its bountiful nature not only inspires admiration for its beauty, but also requires careful respect for its biodiversity.”
During his address, the pope also said that citizens have to be valued according to their freedom, and protected by a stable order.
“It’s not the law of the most powerful, but rather the power of the law, approved by all, that regulates peaceful coexistence,” Francis said, adding that just as laws are needed that can ensure harmony and help overcome conflicts, there also are laws required not because they respond to a pragmatic need to order society.
These laws, he said, “form the desire to resolve the structural causes of poverty that lead to exclusion and violence. Only in this way can there be healing of the sickness that brings fragility and lack of dignity to society, leaving it always vulnerable to new crises.”
Francis encouraged the Colombian leadership to “look at all those who today are excluded and marginalized,” those who “a majority of society sees as having no value and are cast aside.
“Everyone is needed in the work of creating and shaping society,” he said.
Speaking about the Church in Colombia, the pontiff said that he’s conscious that the principle of the Gospels make up part of the social fabric and thus can contribute to the growth of the country, particularly “sacrosanct respect for human life, above all for the weakest and most defenseless, is a cornerstone in the formation of a society free from violence,” and the family, “envisioned by God to be the fruit of spousal love.”
Look at those who suffer in the eyes, the pope said, because “they, who cry out from their shackles, really understand the words of the one who died on the cross.”
Francis closed his remarks lamenting that in Colombia, there has been too much hatred and vengeance.
“We do not want any type of violence whatsoever to restrict or destroy one more life,” he said. “I have wanted to come here to tell you that you are not alone, that there are many of us who accompany you in taking this step; this visit intends to offer you an incentive, a contribution that in some way paves the path to reconciliation and peace.”
As he was walking to the stage where he delivered his remarks, Pope Francis was flanked by Santos and first lady Maria Clemencia Rodriguez. Along the way, the pontiff was stopped several times by children, some of them with Down syndrome, who handed him a small cross and other gifts.
He also took the time to greet a group of children with disabilities, who enjoyed VIP seating at the event. A group of several hundred children wearing white hoodies with words such as “reconciliation,” “solidarity,” “hope,” and “peace.”
Before Francis, Santos delivered his own speech, in which he thanked the pope for reminding Colombians that the return of the Prodigal son in the Bible has to be celebrated, not because of his acts, but “because he had been lost and was found.
“Thank you, Your Holiness, for bringing us the live fountain of faith, the message of he who said: we don’t have to forgive seven times, but seventy times seven,” Santos said.