BOGOTA, Colombia (CNS) — When Pope Francis visits Colombia early next year, his visit may become a celebration of peace in a country with the longest-running war in the Western Hemisphere.
But some in the Colombian church see the planned papal visit as an opportunity for self-examination.
“The pope’s visit is an opportunity for the Colombian church to reflect deeply on its role in the violence that has plagued our country,” Father Alberto Franco, executive secretary of the country’s Interchurch Justice and Peace Commission, told Catholic News Service.
“When he comes to Colombia, Francis could publicly confess the church’s complicity with violence and ask for forgiveness, or at least pressure the Colombian bishops to do so,” Father Franco said.
In a 2014 report from a network of communities in the country’s war zones, the Catholic Church was singled out for its role in “promoting and justifying” violence.
“The active participation of the church in cycles of violence dates to the Conquest, when the church legitimized, blessed and sanctified the violence,” states the report, which was prepared for a truth commission related to the peace process. It goes on to document church involvement with anti-liberal and anti-communist campaigns of the past century, stating that the church “pushed crusades to exterminate sons and daughters of God because they thought differently, because they aspired to a social order that respected the freedoms recognized by modern democracies.”
A report released in June by the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, documents 50 cases of church officials — from parish priests to archbishops — who collaborated with death squads, paramilitaries, drug traffickers and military officials in carrying out violence against civilians in Colombia.
Written in Spanish and titled “Cases Implicating the Church in the Violence in Colombia,” the 102-page report approvingly cites Pope Francis’ public apology in Bolivia in 2015 when he asked for forgiveness for the church’s “grave sins” during the Conquest. It states that Pope Francis’ planned visit to Colombia represents “an exceptional opportunity to recognize the church’s responsibility in the violence of the country, which derives from ideological postures that have favored the establishment over the poor majorities.”
Some argue the pope’s visit could also provide recognition to pastoral workers martyred during the violence because of their faith and their commitment to accompanying persecuted communities.
“All of the Colombian people have suffered, and we have experienced the same fate. The martyrs are a sign that we, as a church, have not placed ourselves outside the conflict. We have been present, and such presence is always a risk, including the risk of martyrdom,” said Archbishop Luis Castro Quiroga of Tunja, president of the Colombian bishops’ conference. “If a community is attacked, the parish pastor has to be with his people, he can’t take off running and leave the people alone. He has to stay there and run the same risks as his people.”
The exact nature of the pope’s visit will be determined in part by the pontiff’s interaction with the Colombian bishops’ conference. Yet that group, which has a wide range of theological and political perspectives, is itself conflicted about the relation of the church to the war and the process to end it.
Archbishop Castro first served as president of the conference from 2005 to 2008. But after serving just one term, he was replaced, despite a custom of electing presidents for two consecutive terms. According to church insiders, a majority of the bishops’ conference supported former President Alvaro Uribe and his hardline policies, and even threw Uribe a birthday party every year. They reportedly saw Archbishop Castro as too sympathetic to the war’s victims and replaced him with the more conservative Ruben Salazar Gomez, today a cardinal and archbishop of Bogota.
In 2014, as negotiators in Cuba made serious progress toward peace, a group of progressive bishops lobbied successfully to reinstate Archbishop Castro, arguing he had the integrity to navigate the complicated politics surrounding the peace process.
Archbishop Castro became a frequent presence at the peace talks in Havana and shepherded dozens of victims to Cuba to testify at the negotiating table.
As part of the church’s work in the peace process, he said, the church also decided to take an official look at its own historical involvement in the conflict.
“We had a group write that analysis, and they recently finished it,” he said. “But what they wrote wasn’t liked by anyone.”
A landmark cease-fire agreement between the Colombian government and leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, was signed June 23 in Havana. Negotiators have several more issues to resolve before a final peace treaty can be signed, but some observers expect that could happen as early as July.
Negotiations with a second guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, lag far behind, and no agreements are expected soon.
Pope Francis told reporters flying with him to Armenia June 24 that he prayed Colombia would “never return to a state of war” again. He urged the countries that have mediated the talks to “shield the peace process so that war never returns.”
Archbishop Castro said Pope Francis played a key role in the country’s peace process.
“When the pope visited Cuba last year, the negotiators wanted to meet with him, but that wasn’t possible,” Archbishop Castro said. “Yet he did send a message encouraging us to continue with the peace process, which was very helpful given that not everyone in Colombia is convinced that the dialogue in Havana is on the right track.”
Pope Francis “is very close to the situation in Colombia and very much in sync with our problems,” Archbishop Castro told Catholic News Service. “We feel very close to him for his way of speaking, his closeness to our Colombian and Latin American history, and his option for the poor. Many people here who were indifferent to the church before have become very excited about the pope.”
He said he recently met with Pope Francis at the Vatican to begin planning the visit.
“Some in the government are as enthusiastic about the visit as we are. Yet they somehow think we have to sign the final peace accords or he won’t come. That’s not true. The pope will be delighted if we sign the peace before his visit, but it is not a prerequisite for him to come to Colombia,” he said. “The pope’s visit will be pastoral, not political.”