Let’s Take the First Step: The Catholic Church and the Challenge of Reconciliation in Colombia

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Jimena Holguin, International Summer Service Learning Program Latin America Assistant Director, March 6, 2018.

In October 2016, the President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, held a plebiscite to ratify the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to end more than five decades of war. The question of the plebiscite was: “Do you support the final agreement to end the conflict and build a stable and lasting peace?” 50.2% of the voters voted no, and 49.8% voted in favor. The results reflected the deep polarization that the conflict left behind among Colombians, and showed us a challenging path towards reconciliation.

I, like many other Colombians who grew up in the midst of the armed conflict, struggled to understand these results. Along with trying to find an explanation for why 50% of voters had to reject the agreement, I also started looking for sources of hope by trying to identify those sectors of society that had the potential to move the process forward, help us to reconcile and rebuild the social fabric. Undoubtedly, the strong political institutions, President Santos’ determination and commitment to peace, and the thousands of Colombians who have worked tirelessly and devoted their entire careers to create a sustainable peace came first to my mind. The leaders of the Catholic Church in Colombia have historically played a unique role in peacebuilding, and I believe they will be the anchor for reconciliation in Colombia.  

In his work on Catholic peacebuilding with armed actors, John Paul Lederach explains that the Catholic Church in Colombia, as in many other Catholic majority countries affected by war where revolutionary forces have used violence in the name of social injustices, has lived within “competing pressures.” On one hand, in rural areas of the country with a limited State presence, the parishes and the local priests have become the first resource for people in times of crisis, creating natural and strong connections between the Church and the victims of violence. On the other hand, the Church has faced the dilemma that its pastoral work, guided by the preferential option for the poor, oppressed and vulnerable “at least in rhetoric, is often the same vision expressed by the insurgents.”

Throughout history, the Church in Colombia not only has navigated these competing pressures, but it has used the potential that this duality creates to effectively mobilize and act both at the horizontal and vertical levels. The Church has been able to be involved in high level negotiations between the government and the rebels. At the same time, religious and lay leaders been able to engage victims in their parishes as well as members of armed groups on the ground. In the words of Lederach, this has made Colombia a place where “the infrastructure and ecclesiology of Church structure so nearly aligns with the multilevel and multifaceted demands of peacebuilding.” 

The four-year long process that led to the final agreement with the FARC was not an exception. The Catholic Church played its role at multiple levels and at different points of the process. After the 2016 plebiscite was rejected, the Vatican urged Colombians to save the agreement. The Congress of Colombia approved a revised peace agreement on November 30, 2016. Afterwards, the Pope called President Santos and former President Alvaro Uribe, political opponent and leader of the “No” movement, to the Vatican to work on their differences. Even though both Santos and Uribe attended the meeting, there was not an evident agreement between the two leaders. Once again, this anecdote showed us Colombians the challenge of reconciliation we had in front of us.

I firmly believe that the privileged position and effective role the Catholic Church has played in peacebuilding in Colombia will guide and help us in this process.

In the midst of a very polarized environment, Pope Francis visited Colombia in September 2017. The motto of his visit was “Let’s take the first step,” and during the six days of his visit he consistently invited Colombians to work together to heal the scars of war, to reconcile and to move forward in faith and hope. During his prayer for national reconciliation, Pope Francis said “undoubtedly, it is a challenge for each of us to trust that those who inflicted suffering in communities and on a whole country can take step forward. It is true that in this enormous field of Colombia there is nevertheless room for weeds . . . You must be attentive to the fruit . . . care for the wheat and do not lose peace because of the weeds. When the sower finds weeds mingled with the wheat, he or she is not alarmed. Search for the way in which the Word becomes incarnate in concrete situations and produces the fruit of new life, even if it appears to be imperfect or incomplete.”

Gerard Powers, Director of the Catholic Peacebuilding Studies at the Kroc Institute, reminded us in his address at UN Headquarters last October 2017 that the Pope’s imploration for peace and reconciliation in Colombia 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.” We need to continue supporting the peacebuilding efforts of the church at different levels in Colombia, and individually we need to commit to follow Pope Francis’ call to take the first step.


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