Two days before Pope Francis was scheduled to arrive in Colombia to kick off a four-city tour, the nation’s last remaining guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, said it was willing to sign a temporary cease-fire.
It wasn’t a miracle, exactly, but it felt like one in Arauca — this far-flung border state and ELN stronghold that has seen its recent history etched in blood.
The group had murdered the region’s beloved bishop, Jesús Emilio Jaramillo, in 1989. And on Thursday, the pope will beatify Jaramillo and Father Pedro María Ramírez, who was murdered in 1948 — both victims of Colombia’s many decades of political violence.
The ELN cease-fire (which begins Oct. 1) and the beatification of a man who fought for peace with the Marxist group was a beautiful coincidence, said Father Jose María Bolívar, a longtime friend of the bishop’s.
“For me, this is a sign that there really is divine justice,” he said, as he inspected the nook at the local cathedral where one of Jaramillo’s bones, or relics, will be put on display for veneration. “This is God telling us that it’s worth it to give up our lives — not always as martyrs but in the service of other people. It’s worth fighting for grand and noble ideals.”
Francis comes to Colombia at a time when this country, long inured to war, is wrestling with how to embrace the ideal of peace. In November, President Juan Manuel Santos helped broker a peace pact with the hemisphere’s largest and oldest guerrilla army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The agreement allows the FARC to become a political party.
While the deal had the Vatican’s backing, it’s viewed with suspicion or fear by many in Colombia who feel it’s too lenient. When Colombians were asked to vote on the peace deal last October, they rejected it.
The agreement was eventually rammed through congress, but its implementation has emerged as one of the key issues of the 2018 presidential race. And in hopes of protecting the peace — and his legacy — Santos has been promoting the idea that Francis’ visit is a holy seal of approval of the deal.
The pope “is coming to encourage us to keep looking for peace in a new and different Colombia,” Santos said this week. “It fills us with joy to receive him in a country that was able to overcome its hatreds and fears to end the longest and most painful conflict in our history.”
Francis will undoubtedly praise the deal on this visit, but it’s also clear the Vatican is trying to steer clear of political hot-button issues.
Before leaving Rome, the church announced that the pope will not be meeting with representatives of the FARC (now Colombia’s newest political party) or with members of the Venezuelan opposition.
Even as Santos and factions within Venezuela will be scrutinizing the pope’s speeches for signs of support, the Catholic Church has its own agenda.
Colombia is the sixth-largest Catholic country in the world at a time when the church is being besieged. A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center found that nearly 75 percent of all Protestants in Colombia were raised Catholic, and 84 percent were baptized as Catholics.
Starting on Thursday — the day after his arrival — Francis will be holding Mass and other ceremonies in Bogotá, Villavicencio, Medellín and Cartagena. And the local church is hoping that the first papal tour since John Paul II in 1986 will help stop the stampede of parishioners.
In Villavicencio, a city in central Colombia, the pope is expected to focus on the victims of the long conflict that has left more than 220,000 dead. And that’s where he will officially beatify the two men, the first step toward sainthood.
Crucially, it’s the first time the church will recognize religious figures who died in Colombia’s political violence.
Father Darío Echeverri, the secretary of the National Reconciliation Council, said scores of clergy and lay missionaries in Colombia have given their lives on the job over the last decades.
“Like a ship captain, the members of the church — the priests, the nuns —are the last ones to leave when the storm arrives,” he said.
In Arauca alone, four priests in addition to Jaramillo have been murdered since the 1980s. The violence has been so widespread here that the government recognizes the local church as one of the “collective victims” of the conflict, Bolívar said.
“We have thousands of [martyrs] in Colombia,” he said. “This country has always marched to the beat of war, confrontation and cruel violence.”
Father Ramírez, the other priest who will be beatified, was, perhaps, one of the first to fall to political violence. He was hacked to death by a mob in 1948 shortly after the assassination of Liberal Party candidate Jorge Eliciér Gaitán, which sparked decades of bloody partisan fighting with the Conservatives.
Jaramillo’s path to martyrdom began in the 1980 when he moved to Arauca amid an oil boom. The region’s newfound wealth attracted some of the country’s worst elements including the FARC, the ELN and right-wing paramilitary groups all battling for control.
Jaramillo stepped into the mix, trying to bring education, health and basic services into this long neglected community, said Arauca Gov. Ricardo Alvarado Bestene, who was a young doctor at the time, and a friend of the bishop’s.
Jaramillo was visiting rural communities when the ELN demanded a meeting with him under the pretext of asking him to deliver a message to the national government. Days later, on Oct. 2, 1989, Jaramillo’s body was found. He’d been executed — shot in the head and the heart.
Bestene said the priest’s decision to work with oil companies, making sure they provided funds for community development, “probably cost him his life.”
Bolívar said Monsignor Jaramillo, who was 73 at the time, might have also been a victim of the culture war raging within the Catholic Church.
It was a time when Liberation Theology was sweeping the region, and the ELN was demanding that Jaramillo embrace the philosophy that encouraged the poor to revolt against the wealthy elite. Jaramillo refused to take sides.
“He was about the path of Jesus, where there’s room for everyone, where everyone has rights and where we’re all a big family,” Bolívar said. “His faith was an obstacle to the social causes they were pursuing.”
The ELN eventually apologized for killing him, but it was too late, Bestene said.
“The ELN recognized that they had made a grave mistake with Jaramillo and with Arauca,” he said. “But they left behind a man who was an example. ... For me he’s already a saint.”
Since then ELN violence has ebbed and flowed in this region. Just two weeks ago, a Colombian naval officer was killed by the group as he patrolled the Arauca river.
The ELN cease-fire, if it does come, will begin almost 19 years to the day since Jaramillo was murdered. And nobody would have been happier about the detente than the late bishop, Bolívar said.
“It’s like a drop of medicine that has come to heal hearts and spiritual wounds,” he said of the beatification. “It tells us that God will help us and a better future is possible.”
Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter @jimwyss