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Be the first to love, to build bridges, pope tells Colombians

VATICAN CITY — Colombia's transition to a just and lasting peace requires a commitment on behalf of all the nation's people to taking the first step toward reconciliation, Pope Francis said in a video message.

"'Let's take the first step' is the motto of this trip," the pope said in the message broadcast Sept. 4. "This reminds us also to be the first to love, to build bridges, to create fraternity."

"Taking the first step encourages us to go out to meet the other, to extend a hand and exchange the sign of peace," Pope Francis said.

The Sept. 6-10 visit to Colombia "is a bit special," the pope told reporters on the plane to Colombia, because he is going "to help Colombia go forward in its journey of peace."

The pope arrived Colombia Sept. 6 for a five-day stay in the country. He was to visit the capital, Bogota, and the cities of Villavicencio, Medellin and Cartagena.

A key point of the trip was to give encouragement to Colombians after more than five decades of civil war. The government ratified a peace agreement with the largest rebel group, known as FARC, in November 2016. And just two days before the pope's arrival, negotiators for the government and the National Liberation Army, the ELN, announced they had reached a temporary cease-fire agreement.

In his video message, Pope Francis said he was going to Colombia "as a pilgrim of hope and peace, to celebrate with you faith in our Lord and also to learn from your charity and your perseverance in the search for peace and harmony."

A stable and lasting peace, he said, requires an effort to recognize each other as brothers and sisters rather than enemies.

The world today needs people who promote peace and dialogue, the pope said. "The Church, too, is called to this task, to promote reconciliation with the Lord and with one's brothers and sisters, but also reconciliation with the environment, which is God's creation and which we are savagely exploiting."

Values needed for peace

Pope Francis will help Colombians celebrate the official end of the country's 52-year civil war by urging the country to cultivate true peace, said Archbishop Jose Octavio Ruiz Arenas, a Colombian who serves as secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization.

Archbishop Ruiz, who had been archbishop of Villavicencio, will accompany Pope Francis on the visit to Colombia.

Pope Francis will celebrate a prayer service for national reconciliation in the city Sept. 8; about 6,000 people have been invited, including victims of the civil war, surviving family members and former members of guerrilla groups and militias, said Greg Burke, director of the Vatican press office.

"Right now in Colombia, the Church is encouraging that yearning for peace that is everywhere," Archbishop Ruiz told reporters at the Vatican Sept. 1. "But I must distinguish between that desire for peace that all Colombians have and the signing of this treaty" for peace between the government and the largest rebel group, known as FARC. "They are two different things."

The treaty is a "political" response to the situation, and a slight majority of the population rejected it in a referendum in October 2016. However, the Colombian congress ratified the treaty a month later. "This has created a very serious problem because the opposition said this treaty is not legitimate, and the president betrayed" the will of the majority of people, Archbishop Ruiz said.

The archbishop said he does not believe Pope Francis will speak about specific aspects of the peace accord, but rather will talk about the Christian values that must be the foundation of a true and lasting peace.

"I think the pope will help us understand that peace is such a great gift that we must forget that political fact and continue seeking a real peace," the archbishop said. "It is not enough to sign a treaty with one group unless we struggle to remove the causes of the violence, which were injustice, the unequal distribution of goods, corruption, the problem of drug trafficking, etc. If we do not attack the causes, the violence will continue. Perhaps not with FARC, but with other groups that still feel they are victims of the state or of the situation of the nation."

"The Church is working hard" to encourage an effort to address the underlying causes of social exclusion, injustice and suffering, Archbishop Ruiz said. "Then it remains to be seen whether they listen or not to what the pope will say, otherwise it will be very difficult." 


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