The theme of Pope Francis' trip to Colombia is reconciliation. But nowhere is this more tangible than in Villavicencio, a flashpoint of civil war for decades.
It only takes half an hour to fly from cool Bogota in the mountains down to the edge of the wide plains of the Llanos Orientales, Colombia's tropical garden. Today a vibrant, up-and-coming regional metropolis, Villavicencio was for decades a flashpoint of conflict with FARC guerrillas.
The pope deliberately chooses this location for his call to bury hatred and revenge – between the conflicting parties in the decades-long guerrilla war, the country's ethnic groups and traditions, the sexes and also between man and nature. Citizens in the outskirts of Villavicencio have been waiting for Francis by the tens of thousands, perhaps for this very message. It is ordinary people who are more exposed to the consequences of any kind of conflict than the well-to-do.
Mass, beatification and reconciliation meeting
Francis arrives to celebrate his second major Mass after Thursday's inaugural service in Bogota. In the afternoon, a reconciliation meeting is on the agenda, separate from the Mass so as not to exclude or usurp other communities of faith. Here, the pope is also expected to hear life stories of victims of violence – teenagers recruited by guerrillas; a woman whose husband and children were murdered one by one by paramilitaries.
The church there, led by Archbishop Oscar Urbina Ortega, president of the Colombian Bishops' Conference, is using the papal visit to have Francis beatify two clergymen: Bishop Jesus Emilio Jaramillo Monsalve (1916-1989), who was kidnapped and shot by militias, and priest Pedro Maria Ramirez Ramos (1899-1948), one of the first victims of the guerrilla conflict.
All or nothing: This is how reconciliation works
It rained before the festive Mass. The vast grounds, which should have room for a million visitors, are softened up. Wide zones remain empty, in the end there may be 200.000 or 350.000, braving the oppressive sultriness and mud to hear Francis. Because this day is a Marian feast, the pope is taking a bit of a swing from Our Lady and her husband Joseph, whose ancestral history is as marked by shadows and injustices as Colombia's history is.
"What are the paths to reconciliation?", Francis asks, answering, "Like Mary, to say 'yes' to the whole story and not just part of it; like Joseph, to put aside passions and pride; like Jesus Christ, to invite this story upon us, to accept it, to embrace it."
The Pope chooses his words wisely
It is enough, says the Pope, if only some overcome the temptation to revenge, "to take the courage to take the first step in this direction – without waiting for the others to do it". Here many applaud, as they did shortly before when he criticized patriarchalism and chauvinism toward women.
Francis worded his homily carefully; he differentiates. Willingness to forgive does not mean hiding differences and conflicts, he said. Nor did it mean "legitimizing structural injustices," he says. "The recourse to reconciliation must not serve to submit to situations of injustice."
Calling for reconciliation everywhere
It's a striking call – because it brings together both liberation theology and its critics, such as then-Prefect of the Faith Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Perhaps not coincidentally, Francis mentions John Paul II at this point. (1978-2005); that pope who led the confrontation with liberation theology and its proximity to leftist political systems. Already on Thursday, Francis had stressed in his speech to bishops in Bogota that he wanted to be understood in continuity with the teaching of his predecessors. Not a revolutionary, then.
Francis touches on yet another reconciliation, that with nature. "It is no accident that we have also taken out our possessiveness and our desire to rule on her," he says. The department of Meta, whose capital is Villavicencio, already extends into Amazonia. That the protection of this natural and cultural space is a matter of concern to him is also made clear by Francis before the Colombian bishops when he invokes the "wisdom of the indigenous peoples of Amazonia" and appeals "to learn from them the sanctity of life and respect for nature".
At the end of the Mass, ten people from the flooded region of Mocoa introduce themselves to the Pope. A mother with two seriously ill children asks for his blessing. And at this moment, one's own hardship seems heavier than the historical dimensions of reconciliation.