MONSIGNOR ARENAS: “THE COLOMBIA THE POPE WILL FIND”

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The one starting tomorrow will be the third journey of Pope Francis in South America, after the one for the WYD to Brazil in 2013 and the one in July 2015 to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay. This time the Pontiff will travel to Colombia. The Secretary of the Pontifical Council for the new evangelization, Archbishop Octavio Ruiz Arenas, bishop emeritus of Villavivencio, one of the cities that will be visited by Francis, has accepted to speak of this visit in exclusive with in Terris.

Excellence, what country will the Holy Father find after the peace agreements with the Farc?

“A country that is unfortunately still a little divided on this, because the way in which it has been done is not considered by many to be the fairest since so many people are saying ‘we want peace but in a different way’. There seems to be a little bit of impunity, that victims have not been heard and therefore he will find a country that really wants peace but in which there is, let us say, some feeling of regret for the way in which it is implemented. But I believe that the desire of peace, collaboration, of seeking reconciliation and dialog, is everywhere”.

The Pontiff goes to Colombia precisely in order to encourage these efforts. However, the local Church was not united in supporting the yes to the referendum on the first agreement. What are the main obstacles for a complete pacification of the country? Is there for example the issue of justice for those who are guilty of atrocious crimes.

“The Church is divided not so much for the problem of peace as such but for the way in which the signature of the agreement and the referendum has been implemented. It can be seen that many opposing voices were not taken into consideration. It is not a question of political issues, we know that there is a division that is too strong (between President Santos and his predecessor Uribe, editor’s note) and the episcopate has not entered into that, but looking at the victims, at many people who have a very big need and the government that does not take care of them, then the Bishops say ‘wait a moment, justice must be for all’. On the other hand, making peace does not only mean signing a document, but tackle the causes that led to this strong violence for many years: injustice, corruption, the unjust distribution of goods, the wealth of a few and the poverty of the great majority … so if we do not tackle the causes but we only think about signing a document, peace will never be reached”.

How are the Colombians preparing to the encounter with Francis?

“There is a very interesting preparation. I was recently in Colombia and I saw that there really is an environment of faith, of prayer, of great appreciation for the Holy Father, of looking at the main virtues and values of the Gospel. The Pontiff comes to confirm the Catholics of this land in the faith and there is a very strong spiritual preparation and pastoral impulse. And it seems to me that more or less everywhere there is a great joy waiting for the Pope”.

In Colombia, there are very strong social inequalities. The commitment of the Pope for the last, for the poor, for the “rejected” is well known. Is the Government equally committed to reduce this gap?

“It is a little difficult to answer… When one reads the official reports, it seems that poverty has decreased and that the country is improving but in reality, we see that there is no progress, that there are a lot of people that have nothing, so many houses in practically inhuman conditions etc. I cannot say what is the commitment of the government … Perhaps there is goodwill but unfortunately now it has been discovered that there is a lot of corruption, money which should serve to improve the infrastructure needed to live better in Colombia, goes into the pockets of so many politicians and even judges and this is very serious.”

There are not only the Farc: at what point are the negotiations with the ELN?

“In fact, the guerrilla groups are different. With the ELN the government has begun a dialog at Quito, also the Church operated positively, seeking that they too may walk on this path. However, in the meantime they continue with kidnapping, with extortion… therefore we do not know to what extent there is sincerity in the beginning of this dialog to put an end to this war”.

Next year there will be political elections: are there risks for the agreement with the FARC and for the negotiations with the other guerrilla groups?

“During the month of January when the electoral campaign for the presidency and the Senate will really start, we will understand what are the prospects indicated by the parties. Certainly, the theme of peace and the way in which it will be carried on, will be very difficult. Some groups say that the way in which President Santos reached this agreement is not efficient and therefore there is the danger of going back. But I do not think that this is the moment to go back and start all over again, rather we must find a way to improve. I think that those who oppose the policy of the president should think, if they win the elections, about how to improve the agreement in such a way that we can reach a solution. But I think that they should already welcome this political party that was created during last weekend in the Congress of the Farc in order to participate in the elections”.

The other big plague of the country is drug trafficking. After the end of the war with the FARC is a real reduction in the cultivation of coca possible? What the government is doing in practical terms in the fight against the production and distribution of drugs?

“We must recognize that the Colombian government launched a huge fight against drugs but unfortunately the cultivation increases because it also increases the demand of drugs both in Europe and in the United States. There were thousands and thousands of hectares of cultivation of coca that were destroyed with fumigation or with the manual eradication of plants, however the efforts are useless because there are many economic interests. The FARC were one of the principal managers of this trafficking. I do not know if they have already abandoned the territories cultivated, if they have a real will to no longer be labelled as drug traffickers, but there will be immediately other groups ready to take their place. This is a very serious problem: we must recognize that Colombia is perhaps the country that has fought the most against this scourge but unfortunately it is very difficult to eliminate it. Among other things our geographical landscape is so diverse that it will be almost impossible to eradicate this problem without the will of those asking for drugs for the internal consumption of some nations”.

Colombia also faces the painful problem of child-soldiers. How is the government dealing with it? How important is the support of the Church in this field?

“Soldiers no, they are guerrillas… I think that this is one of the strong points of the treaty, it seems to me that the FARC has already delivered all the minor boys they recruited. I do not know about the ELN, which unfortunately took children from families to increment their forces but it seems to me that, at least officially, everyone is struggling for the rights of children to be respected. We also hope that the other guerrilla groups understand that we must not use kids who must live their lives peacefully, their childhood without putting themselves in a war that does not belong to them”.

The churches in Colombia are always full of faithful but is there a risk that the “secular globalisation” may adversely affect the society bringing forward the effects of secularism?

“This is unfortunately true, secularism is slowly invading everything and for this it reason evangelization is important, also the new evangelization, like first John Paul II, then Benedict XVI asked us and like now Pope Francis constantly repeats  to us: we need a pastoral conversion, because the problem of secularism is also the result of globalization, therefore we see that in many nations who were catholic, who had very strong roots, secularization started to remove Catholicism from their cultures. And this also happening to us. We start to see an indifference on the part of young people who no longer want to hear the words of the Gospel, who think that it is something obsolete… Therefore, it is necessary a very, very strong pastoral work, a great effort to understand how to respond to this challenge of secularism. It is a reality that we cannot deny: secularism starts to ‘eat up’ our Christian values”.

In 2015, during the visit to Cuba, the Pope addressed his thoughts to Colombia and to the peace process which was in the crucial moment. Do you think that something similar could be possible for the nearby Venezuela, which is experiencing a dramatic phase?

“I think he will say something, if the Venezuelan Bishops will be there the Pope certainly will have some words for them, there is this closeness between Venezuela and Colombia … I do not know if publicly (at the moment official meetings are not scheduled, editor’s note) but at least to give them comfort, a word of encouragement. He knows the situation very well “.

This trip has without a doubt a great political significance, in the noblest sense of the word. What do the Colombian Church and the government of Bogota expect from the visit of Holy Father? How will this affect the social and political life of the country?

“The message of the Pope will be a message of reconciliation, of openness to dialog and capacity for forgiveness but also of justice. These will be words that if taken seriously, will bear enormous fruit. The important thing is that there is a true listening and then to see how to continue. The visit itself is a very important gesture however if there is no follow up, a continuation of reflection and commitment of the political part, of the ecclesiastical and civil society, then it will be a visit that will be remembered with emotion but one that will be a little fruitful. But I think that at least on the part of the Church there is the commitment to give continuity in working with people following the words that the Holy Father will tell us in those circumstances, the commitment to make people understand that as Christians we must be reconciled, we must have feelings of openness, acceptance, closeness and forgiveness”.

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