Awaiting vote, Church readies for pastoral work

As the people of Colombia prepare to go to the polls Oct. 2 to vote on a historic agreement ending 40 years of civil war, the Church — a key if low-profile actor in the process — is planning for the pastoral challenges that the post-conflict period will bring.

The peace agreement finally reached in Havana on Aug. 24 between the government and the country’s largest Marxist guerrilla, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, is to be signed in the Colombian coastal city of Cartagena on Sept. 26. President Juan Manuel Santos says Cartagena was chosen because of the tomb there of Colombia’s great Jesuit saint, Peter Claver, the 16th-century defender of the human rights of slaves.

Despite the historic breakthrough, the bishops have been careful not to tell voters how to vote on Oct. 2. They are keen to avoid being caught in the political crossfire over the 297-page Havana Peace Accords, which are the result of four years’ intense horse-trading in the Cuban capital between the Santos government and the FARC, which has at least 7,000 armed militants in the sweltering plains a day south of the Colombia capital, Bogotá.

Reasons for caution

Alvaro Uribe, the still-popular former president who waged a frontal U.S.-backed war against the FARC, is leading the “No” campaign, under the slogan Paz sí — pero no así (“Peace yes — but not like this”), while Santos argues that the agreement is the only chance of ending a decades-old conflict that has directly impacted 8 million people.

The “No” campaign is critical of the “transitional justice” scheme, which is designed to enable truth and restitution while keeping most guerrillas out of jail. They also object to the fact that FARC chiefs will end up with some designated seats in Congress, warning that the peace accords are being used to introduce Marxism through the back door. That fear is echoed by some Catholics who point to the way the word “gender” appears 114 times in the peace agreement, which they say suggests the influence of gender ideology.

Yet faced with the prize of an historic peace, even Colombians who share those objections regard them as secondary. Opinion polls showing 60-65 percent support for “Yes” suggest that most people here regard the peace deal as the best chance in a lifetime for escaping the vicious cycle of conflict and revenge that has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions.

Although most — but by no means all — bishops favor a “Yes” vote, they have focussed on educating Colombians about the issues involved, urging them to inform their consciences and, above all, turn out.

“On this we’ve been absolutely clear: Whether you’re voting ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ you must vote,” Bishop Elkin Alvarez Botero, secretary-general of the bishops’ conference, told Our Sunday Visitor. “Obviously the Church is not indifferent or neutral about the possibility of building peace following an agreement with the guerrillas, and that is why we are urging people to use their consciences, so that they clearly opt for the way of negotiation and dialogue.”

Church’s pastoral role

The bishops have a dedicated office, the National Reconciliation Commission, to coordinate nationwide efforts supporting dialogue and negotiation. The commission has worked to enable victims of the violence — whether the result of FARC’s kidnapping and extortion, or the war waged on it by the army and paramilitaries — to be heard and their grievances addressed.

The commission’s secretary-general, Father Dario Echeverri González, described to OSV how early in the peace talks the Church asked the parties in Havana to include testimonies from those who have suffered from the conflict. The Church later acted as “guarantor” for five groups of a dozen victims — mostly but not all of the FARC — to come to the Cuban capital to address the negotiating table.

“Their stories produced tears from everyone — the guerrilla leaders, the army chiefs, the state negotiators,” Father Echeverri said. “As a result of those five meetings, everyone at the table started to realize that the agreement had to put the victims at the center; otherwise, it made no sense.”

The new focus meant that the parties began to concentrate less on what was in their own interest and to think about the victims. It also led to a general realization that, rather than shifting the blame to particular groups, it was the conflict itself that had dehumanized all involved.

The realization was that only by taking responsibility and asking forgiveness could Colombia move on, Father Echeverri said. “Any conflict dehumanizes the human person, and only forgiveness provides a way out,” he said.

His commission is now preparing for the pastoral challenge of the six-month demobililization that will follow a majority “Yes” vote. During that time, FARC guerrillas will be concentrated in 27 “normalization zones” under United Nations supervision, during which they will hand over their weapons and make plans for their reintegration into society.

At the bishops’ conference headquarters in Bogotá, Father Echeverri briefed some 60 priests and pastoral workers from remote southern parishes to where the zones will be located. After going through the peace accords in detail, he prepared them for the pastoral challenge of thousands of former Marxist guerrillas arriving in their parish with much to confess and an uncertain future ahead of them.

Few in the Church here believe that the Havana accords by themselves will bring peace. “The role of the Church is going to be, above all, after the referendum,” Bishop Alvarez Botero said. “That’s where we need to raise awareness of what reconciliation requires, beyond the polarization that involves opting for one side or another.”

Hope for the future

The bishops have identified eight deep-seated causes of the conflict, including social inequality, poor education and weak institutions, as well as family fragmentation, ethical relativism and corruption. Tackling these challenges will be a task for the next generation.

Right now, implementing the Havana accords presents challenge enough: supporting the victims in their demands for justice and restitution while enabling them to forgive and move on, while at the same time reintegrating and finding jobs for former guerrillas, many of whom were forcibly recruited or born in war zones and have known little else.

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Then there is the issue of land annexed under the guise of war, the coca trade — much of it FARC-controlled — on which so many Colombian farmers rely, not to mention political corruption and the weak state presence in far-flung areas. If this weren’t enough, Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla army, the 2,000-strong National Liberation Army (ELN), isn’t party to the Havana accords.

Even with a growing economy and foreign investment beginning to flow in, the challenges remain formidable, which is why Father Echeverri warns against confusing the deal in Havana with the real peace on which the country’s future depends.

“Peace post-conflict is the fruit of the correct implementation of the agreements,” he said.

Yet for the first time in decades, there is real hope that Colombia can rise to the task, and a palpable sense that mercy and reconciliation can produce real fruits. It is a context in which the Jubilee of Mercy and the Gospel passages are having a palpable effect on the way people are thinking.

One woman told OSV that she had been planning to vote “No” because she felt the guerrillas hadn’t shown sufficient remorse. Then she heard her priest preach at Mass on the parable of the prodigal son. “The priest explained that the prodigal son came back not because he was repentant but because he was hungry. I realized then that what we have to do is follow the example of the Good Father and create space for people to change.”

She plans now to vote “Yes.”

Austen Ivereigh is the author of “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope” (Henry Holt, $30).

A version of this story appears on Page 5 of the Oct. 2, 2016 issue of OSV Newsweekly.