By Maria Lozano
THE NUNCIO in Colombia described the Pope’s Sept. 6-10, 2017 trip to Colombia as “the visit of a friend.” That means, explained Archbishop Ettore Balestrero, that the Pope, “like all friends of the Colombians, will ask some searching questions: What are you doing with your life? Are you really happy? What is the meaning of what you do?”
The archbishop contrasted Pope Francis’ visit with that of Paul VI in 1968, which was “like the visit of a teacher from afar,” and with the journey of St. John Paul II in 1987, which was “like the visit of a father.” Pope Francis, he continued, will come as a friend—“a friend who is, of course, also a father and a teacher, but who is first and foremost a friend. Since he is from Latin America himself, he knows Colombia. He understands the Colombian way.”
The towns Francis will visit include not only the internationally famous ones—Bogotá, Medellín and Cartagena – but also Villavicencio on the eastern plain. No Pope has ever been there. That region which was the scene of many armed conflicts between leftist FARC guerrillas and paramilitary units on the right.
Referring to the peace process currently underway in the country—with the goal of fully disarming FARC and reintegrating its members in the larger society—the archbishop stressed that the upcoming papal visit marks a historically crucial time: “Although a number of legal and social issues still have to be worked out, Colombia is in the process of closing a chapter of its history
“At the same time, a new chapter is beginning in which everything is open. Colombians will themselves be the authors of this new chapter. They will shape it with the decisions they make. Colombia can adopt the positive aspects of Western culture and modern societies. But it can also fall prey to the contradictions and weaknesses that characterize these societies.
The archbishop said that the Holy Father is coming as a “pilgrim of faith, hope and reconciliation, visiting a country which is passing through a transitional stage in many respects, not only on account of the peace process.” Citizens’ urgent task, he added, is “to rebuild a reconciled country in which Colombians love and respect one another, and where they show respect for God.
Describing Colombians as “very warm, enterprising and diligent,” the archbishop nonetheless talked about what he called a major social rift in Colombia. He said: “There are people starving, while others throw away food.” Specifically, he mentioned the contrast between highly developed cities—such as Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and Barranquilla—and other regions in the country that are desperately poor
“The Holy Father,” said the archbishop, “is the father of the rich and the poor. But he is coming here to remind us that Colombia needs the contribution of all. In the language he uses and in what he proclaims, the Pope plays special emphasis on those who suffer. We cannot live under the same heaven and fail to recognize that other reality as through it didn’t exist.”
Catholic World News reports that “Colombia, a nation of 48.2 million, is 93.9% Catholic; 7,236 diocesan priests and 2,324 religious priests minister to the faithful in 4,397 parishes, with 2,995 minor seminarians and 3,416 major seminarians in formation. In addition, the Church in Colombia has 593 permanent deacons, 1,058 non-ordained male religious, 13,874 religious sisters, and 4,167 Catholic schools.”
In 2016, Aid to the Church in Need supported the Colombian Church with some $750,000. Most of the funding went to the support of more than 660 seminarians and provided living expenses for many priests and nuns.