On October 20, the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the UN sponsored a side-event entitled “Reconciliation and Peace in Colombia: The Impact of the Visit of Pope Francis,” together with the Permanent Mission of Colombia to the UN, Caritas Internationalis, the Catholic Peacebuilding Network, the Krok Institute for International Peace Studies and Grace Initiative.
The event highlighted the message Pope Francis brought to the country when he visited in early September: that all parties must take the first step in reconciliation to heal the wounds of the country’s 52-year conflict, which ended with the signing of the Final Peace Accord between the Colombia Government and Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) in November 2016. The event also featured the role of both the international community and Catholic organizations in working towards peace in Colombia.
Archbishop Bernardito Auza, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the UN, said the Pope’s motto for his pastoral visit — “Demos el primer paso,” Spanish for “Let’s take the first step” — was chosen to inspire all Colombians to take responsibility for making the first move towards forgiving each another, in hopes of mending the society, which has been fragmented by generations of violence and distrust.
“To take the first step, with determination, involves these five elements: courage, forgiveness, reconciliation, truth and justice, and encounter,” Archbishop Auza said, summarizing the message of the Pope’s six-day visit to the country. “Rather than waiting for others to make the first move, he called everyone to ‘go out to meet; others, bringing them an embrace of peace, free of all violence.”
The Holy Father was seeking to accompany Colombians on not just the first step but the entire journey towards peace, since the Church has a particular duty and desire to build peace and reconciliation in the war-torn country, he said.
“That’s the embrace he himself sought to extend to the whole nation,” Archbishop Auza said. “That’s the embrace he’s trying to encourage the whole world to extend toward Colombia and toward each other, so that together we will help bring about a more inclusive and peaceful world.”
Ambassador María Emma Mejía Velez, Permanent Representative of Colombia to the UN, said Pope Francis touched her nation by taking many opportunities to meet with victims who have suffered great loss during the conflict.
“Conflict not only damages people, but damages the culture and society,” she said. “This was the most important achievement of his visit. He understands that society was divided” and he was urging Colombians to replace that division with "forgiveness, humility and love.”
Joseph Cornelius Donnelly, who serves as Head of Delegation of Caritas Internationalis and moderated the event, said that the pursuit of peace in Colombia is an urgent and ongoing matter and encouraged attendees to remain engaged in Colombia’s peace process, which he said can serve as a model for peacebuilding throughout the world, most especially in Latin America. He elaborated on the notion of “accompaniment,” defining it as “attaching to the process” which, heeding the spirit of Pope Francis, Caritas and other Catholic organizations strive to do.
“We want to attach ourselves to the peace process and the people it is for,” he said.
Msgr. Héctor Fabio Henao, Director of Caritas Colombiana and of the National Secretariat of Pastoral and Social Outreach for the Episcopal Conference of Colombia, said that to fully implement the peace accord, Colombians must be engaged in reconciliation at local levels.
“The Holy Father said, 'I have come to cry with you.' I think that is the position of the church,” he said. “It is to walk with the victims; not just to say nice words and give money, but to walk with them towards peace and reconciliation.”
Msgr. Henao also stressed the importance of combatting the coca crop industry to enable peace in the country. He said this must be done by giving local communities opportunities for dignified work.
Professor Gerard Powers, Coordinator of the Catholic Peacebuilding Network and Director of Catholic Peacebuilding Studies for the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, spoke of the Peace Accords Matrix, the world’s largest data base on peace agreements, which tracks implementation of 34 comprehensive agreements since 1989. According to the Matrix's metric system, Colombia is ahead on implementation at the 9-month mark, compared to other peace processes.
“For too long, Colombia has been a poster child for intractable conflicts. But it is also a School of Peace,” Professor Powers said. “Colombia is perhaps the world’s best example of Catholic peacebuilding.”
He said the Colombia Peace Accord will be a difficult and complex process that will require long-term commitment by many actors, both in Colombia and around the world.
“The role the Pope is playing in supporting the peace processes and in imploring Colombians to reconcile is only possible because of the fertile peacebuilding ground prepared by decades of work by the Catholic community, with multiple actors addressing the complex of issues at all levels,” he said.
Virginia Gamba, Special representative of the UN Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict, said that primacy of childrens’ rights was a guiding principle in negotiations toward the Peace Accord, and hopes it will serve as an example for similar peacebuilding situations.
“Peace is both a need and aspiration,” she said, highlighting the need for peace for children’s welfare. “Peace sets the stage to provide a safe and secure place for other common agendas.”