October 20, 2017
Reconciliation and Peace in Colombia: The Impact of the Visit of Pope Francis

Archbishop Bernardito C. Auza
“Reconciliation and Peace in Colombia:
The Impact of the Visit of Pope Francis”

UN Headquarters, New York, October 20, 2017

Your Excellency Mme Permanent Representative of Colombia to the United Nations,
Mme Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Children in Armed Conflict,
Excellencies, Distinguished Panelists and Dear Friends,
I warmly welcome you this afternoon to this event on the ongoing efforts for reconciliation and peace in Colombia, which the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See is very pleased to be hosting together with the Permanent Mission of Colombia, Caritas Internationalis, the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies of the University of Notre Dame, The Catholic Peacebuilding Network, and Grace Initiative.

Last month, from September 6-11, Pope Francis traveled to Colombia to do what we could, through his words, his example, his prayer, and simply his presence, to encourage everyone to do his or her part to bring good out of the evil the country has endured over the last half-century. He chose for the motto of the pastoral visit, “Demos el primer paso,” “Let’s take the first step,” which he said in a video message prior to his trip, he selected because he wanted to help each Colombian take the initiative to “be the first to love, to build bridges, to create fraternity, … to go out to meet the other, to reach out our hand and to exchange a sign of peace.” He wanted to exhort each person to take responsibility for making the first move.

When he met Colombian leaders in front of the Presidential Palace in Bogotà, he acknowledged that over the previous year many first steps and much progress had been made in ending the armed violence and forging paths of reconciliation. He had come, he said, to encourage Colombians to persevere in that journey. The Church, he said, felt a particular duty and desire to accompany the country on that path, by promoting and facilitating reconciliation, and helping to form and strengthen “counselors of peace and dialogue.” “I have wanted to come here,” he summarized, “to tell you that you are not alone, that there are many of us who accompany you in taking this step.”

Throughout his pastoral visit, Pope Francis delivered passionate speeches, allocutions and homilies addressed to the whole Colombian people, with which he enunciated essential elements needed for the country to take the first and further steps together in the transformation from violence to fraternity, fear to trust, ultimately death to life.

I would like briefly to mention five of these essential conditions.

The first is courage. “It is easier to begin a war than to end one,” he said, quoting Gabriel García Marquez, the 1982 Colombian winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. The pursuit of peace requires a “distinct kind of moral courage” that forces us to rise above ourselves, our fears, our painful memories, our past failed attempts, and our pessimism about whether new attempts will succeed. On multiple occasions he focused on those heroes from Colombia’s past and present whom he called “artisans of peace,” many of whom gave their lives, to bring about reconciliation. In doing so, he was encouraging Colombians today, like them, to take the risk to move forward. He said in Villavicencio, “What is needed is for some courageously to take the first step … without waiting for others to do so.  We need only one good person to have hope!  And each of us can be that person!”

The second is forgiveness. Pope Francis acknowledged how hard it is to resist the “temptation to vengeance,” especially after decades of distrust and bloodshed. It’s easier, he said, to want to “expel” others rather than “integrate” them. Wounds of the heart, he added, “are deeper and more difficult to heal than those of the body.” Taking a determined first step toward peace, however, involves, he underlined, “renounc[ing] our claim to be forgiven without showing forgiveness, to be loved without showing love.” He affirmed the words of a survivor of violence who said that it is not possible to live with resentment and declared that only if we help to “untie the knots of violence” and resentment in our hearts “will we unravel the complex threads of disagreements.” Through forgiveness we begin to heal each other’s wounds, he said, because all Colombians, in one way or another, from one side or another, are victims and have suffered the loss of humanity flowing from so much violence and death. Those who were wrong should be rescued, not destroyed, healed, not eliminated. And in one of the most direct appeals of his journey, he implored, “Dear people of Colombia: do not be afraid of asking for forgiveness and offering it.  … Now is the time to heal wounds, to build bridges, to overcome differences.”

The third is reconciliation. When forgiveness is mutually offered, there is the chance for reconciliation. Pope Francis said that we cannot treat reconciliation as an abstract term. Reconciliation involves, he said, “opening a door to every person who has experienced the tragic reality of conflict,” when people together “overcome the temptation to egoism and … renounce the attempts of pseudo-justice.” Without a sincere commitment to reconciliation, he said, “every effort at peace … is always destined to fail.”

The fourth is the need for truth and justice. The focus on forgiveness and reconciliation cannot eliminate the need for truth and justice. “Truth,” Pope Francis said in Villavicencio, “is an inseparable companion of justice and mercy.  All three together are essential to building peace; each prevents the other from being altered and transformed into instruments of revenge against the weakest.” He said that truth “means telling families torn apart by pain what happened to their missing relatives.  Truth means confessing what happened to minors recruited by violent people.  Truth means recognizing the pain of women who are victims of violence and abuse.”

Justice, he said, is similarly essential to make peace possible. It cannot be a “law of the most powerful,” but must flow from just laws, approved by all, that can help overcome the conflicts that have torn Colombia apart. Such just laws must, he said, confront the “darkness of injustice and social inequality; the corrupting darkness of personal and group interests that consume in a selfish and uncontrolled way what is destined for the good of all; the darkness of disrespect for human life that daily destroys the life of many innocents; the darkness of thirst for vengeance and the hatred which stains the hands of those who would right wrongs on their own authority; the darkness of those who become numb to the pain of so many victims.”

Part of the darkness that needs to be boldly confronted, he specified, is the scourge of drug abuse and the domination of unscrupulous drug lords, who, he says, “reap profits in contempt of moral and civil laws.” In firmly condemning the drug trade that “only sows death everywhere, uproots so many hopes and destroys so many families,” he stressed that “lives of our brothers and sisters cannot be played with, nor their dignity instrumentalized.” He called on the bishops of Colombia in particular to be “fearless in clearly and calmly reminding everyone that a society under the spell of drugs suffers a moral metastasis that peddles hellfire, sows rampant corruption and creates fiscal paradises.” There will be no peace, he suggested, in that earthly hellfire.

Fifth is the need for a culture of encounter. In contrast to that culture of violence and social disintegration that flows from drugs and violence, Pope Francis stressed that there needs to be a culture of encounter. While obviously supporting the Peace Accords, Pope Francis said at the same time, “Peace is not achieved by normative frameworks and institutional arrangements between well-intentioned political or economic groups.” What’s needed, rather, is a “personal encounter between the parties,” one that includes those who “have often been overlooked.” Nothing, he said, “can replace that healing encounter; no collective process excuses us from the [personal] challenge of meeting, clarifying, forgiving.” While leaders have their own work to do from the top down, he was stressing that there is also a need to generate change “from below” through culture, replacing, he said, “the culture of death and violence with the culture of life and encounter.” He prophetically challenged every Colombian, and in a particular way every Colombian Christian, to ask how much he or she has worked for peace by working for this encounter.

To take the first step, with determination, involves these five elements: courage, forgiveness, reconciliation, truth and justice, and encounter.

Pope Francis asked the Colombians to take this first step together, and in the common direction that leads to peace that he tried to sketch. He added, however, in what he called his “last word” immediately before departing Cartagena to return to Rome, “Let us not be content with [just] ‘taking the first step.’  Instead, let us continue our journey anew each day, going forth to encounter others and to encourage concord and fraternity. We cannot just stand still.” 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. That’s the embrace he himself sought to extend to the whole nation. 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.

Thank you once again for coming today and I forward to your active participation in the discussion after the presentations.