‘This is a very important visit’

When Pope Francis arrives in Colombia on Sept. 6, he will encounter a country scarred by a 53-year civil war, in which over 200,000 people have been killed. The pope openly encouraged the country’s government and guerrilla groups as they navigated the peace process, ultimately reaching an agreement in 2016.

Msgr. Henao

Msgr. Héctor Fabio Henao heads the Church’s charitable agency in Colombia, Caritas, and oversees the Colombian bishops’ pastoral social secretariat. He accompanied war victims to testify during the peace process in Havana, Cuba. His work has brought to light that, beyond official agreements, the people of Colombia have to foster peace with one another. And so the theme of the pope’s visit is “Let’s Take the First Step.”

Our Sunday Visitor spoke to Msgr. Henao in advance of Pope Francis’ apostolic trip to Colombia on Sept. 6-11.

Our Sunday Visitor: What are you most looking forward to about the arrival of Pope Francis on Sept. 6?

Msgr. Héctor Fabio Henao: It’s an apostolic trip but at the same time the pope will encourage the reconciliation process in a society which is extremely divided. So we will find different parts to the visit of the Holy Father. On one hand, we will have a special comfort to the Church and the people working in reconciliation, and the pope will encourage all of us to continue ahead to preach the gospel of peace. And at the same time you will find different sectors of the society engaged in the difficult situations because they are very polarized in terms of their opinions relative to the peace process.

OSV: What is the mood in the country as you await the pope’s arrival?

Msgr. Henao: Most of the people feel hope because this is an extremely important opportunity to build a new society. But ... some people feel fear because they are not sure about the negotiations and they feel that the guerillas have more opportunities than they expected in terms of political participation, in terms of having some key positions in the state, etc. ... The implementation of the agreement so far is going on very well but still the people have a lot of questions; they want to have more debate about the initiative taken in Havana. I want to stress also that during the visit of the pope we will have a week of peace. Each year we have a special week of prayer for our nation for peace the first week of September. And this year it’s quite interesting, [as] the pope will come.

OSV: So it will be a special week to have the pope there?

Msgr. Henao: This is a very important visit. Most of the people, I think, have a lot of hope waiting for his messages and his positions. He’s very well known here in this country, and the people follow a lot his teachings. The impact of the visit will be very, very important for this society. He will get in contact also with people living in extreme poverty, particularly Cartagena. He will find people in that situation on the last day of his visit. That will show the mercy and the compassion the pope has stressed during the last year of the pontificate.

OSV: How will Pope Francis be able to assuage the fears?

Msgr. Henao: There are two particular moments which are very important in that sense. First, in Bogatá, when he will speak with the government of the representatives of the state, we feel that is a good opportunity to address the initiatives to those in power who are against the [reconciliation] process and who are not confident of the decision-making. On the second day, which is in a city called Villavicencio, where he will have a special meeting with the victims, it’s a very important opportunity for reconciliation. And there the pope will speak very clearly about the process, and I think his position is that if you have mercy, that can overcome the … fear. He has said several times that you cannot have two contradictory positions. If you have fear, that is to allow all the negative feelings … but if you have compassion and you have mercy, you can open your mind, your heart to those who have committed atrocities in the past, giving them the opportunity to be that light, giving the whole country [an opportunity] to build a society of hope.

OSV: How has the role of the Church in Colombia changed following the peace deal last fall?

Msgr. Henao: We are at the grassroots level in our communities to support them, to give them more information and to engage more of them in the process. Second, at the political level, we have a lot of initiatives with people in the authority or power in the regions to convince them to support and to implement the process ... particularly in the regions that are suffering from the conflict. At the national level, the Church continues to have very clear positions. ... We try to connect all of society and be preachers. That is the most important role or contribution of the Church.

OSV: What are lessons you have learned along the way? What insight might you offer to a society struggling with division and strife?

Msgr. Henao: We have learned a lot during the peace process. First of all, to learn to be in a position to listen to everyone, to stress the opportunity for dialogue. … Because society is suffering due to violence, the most difficult [thing] is to start a dialogue. I believe that it’s possible to overcome the situations through negotiation or through a particular kind of conversation or dialogue. We learned a lot about that. The meaning and the power of listening, the power of having a very clear conversation among the different parties, that has been very important.

And second, we still have a very strong will, all through the end, to not give up. That is very important. To continue always to have a clear position … even if the people are committing atrocities, or continue to engage in violence, we have to continue in that sense.

The (next) issue is spirituality. That is quite important. Recovering a particular spirituality is the only way to breed reconciliation. We need to know how to do that through the faith and through a relationship with Christ. That is very important … to continue to work, to pray, to reflect with the local communities.

And the last one is to have always, always a position in favor of the victims. To have a clear position in favor of them.

OSV: You’ve played a major role in working with people who have been victims of violence. What has the power of their testimony been in advancing negotiations toward peace?

Msgr. Henao: That has been very powerful. In Havana, when they had the negotiation, at the very same moment, there arrived a moment of justice. At that moment, the government, the guerillas and the United Nations decided to invite the Church and the main university here to choose a number of victims to give testimony at the negotiation table. That was very, very important for all of them to listen to the victims, to listen to their testimonies and at that time the negotiation changed a lot. They were more open to the fact that they committed crimes and they committed atrocities and they started to assert that they had a responsibility to the victims and to give also their contribution for the reparation of the victims.

OSV: What are the next steps for your country’s journey of reconciliation?

Msgr. Henao: I think the next step will be to invite our society to have a clear conversation about the process and to develop a big consensus in the social arena, in the political arena, regarding the future of the country. ... That will probably be the most important step at the moment.

OSV: Any final thoughts?

Msgr. Henao: Here, many important things are happening, and the Church is very committed, extremely committed, trying to give the best support and the best contribution to the people, particularly in favor of those who have suffered for decades in this conflict and the atrocities, and that will take time, that will take time to finalize the process. It’s not something we can do in a very short time. We need to work for the long term and that means to have patience and to remain committed, even if we have new challenges.

Gretchen R. Crowe is editor-in-chief of OSV Newsweekly. Don Clemmer is managing editor.

Schedule of Pope Francis' Visit to Colombia
Following is the schedule of Pope Francis’ apostolic journey to Colombia, Sept. 6-11, 2017.