In an emotional speech to thousands of people crowding Bolivar Plaza in Colombia’s capital city, Pope Francis said he had “come to learn from you, from your faith … in the face of adversity.”
The 80-year-old pontiff spoke Thursday morning from a balcony overlooking the plaza, which fronts Bogota’s main cathedral. Admirers cheered, danced and waved Colombian flags.
Smiling, the pope said young people represented hope for reconciliation in the country, ravaged by five decades of guerrilla fighting and divided by the anger some Colombians had over the government’s peace deal last November with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
At the plaza, Francis stressed the importance of the peace process. He said his visit was meant to express “appreciation for the efforts made over the decades to end armed violence and find ways of reconciliation.”
On the first full day of his five-day visit to this heavily Catholic country, Francis met with President Juan Manuel Santos and first lady Maria Clemencia Rodriguez, with other government and religious leaders, and with young people.
In meeting with the pope, Santos recalled his country’s turmoil: “For over half a century, we resigned ourselves to violence on our soil, and its ashes — of resentment, pain, of vengeance — are still ardent embers that we must extinguish.”
To ease those tensions and prepare Colombians for a better future, Santos’ administration has promoted training.
“Education is somehow what most helps us build that different country,” Education Minister Yaneth Giha told VOA. “The pope’s visit helps us to reinforce the message that we are on the right path.”
Francis met privately with Santos. Later, Bogota Mayor Enrique Penalosa handed him the keys to the city in a brief, symbolic ceremony.
Signs of the Catholic faithful extended well beyond plazas and other locations where the pope was scheduled to appear.
Arturo Barreiro, a taxi driver in Bogota for 30 years, decorated his cab with symbols of his Catholic faith, hoping that Francis might bless them. Barreiro’s icons include a banner with Francis’ image and a rosary with the likeness of the late John Paul II, pope from 1978 to 2005.
At Bogota’s Hotel Tequendama, manager Ana Araceli Jara and longtime resident Domenique Garelli created a small prayer room to mark Francis’ visit.
The hotel’s pastry chef, Amparo Parra, led a team of 10 in making a butter carving with the pope’s likeness. It took them three days to create the bust.
The streets of Bogota were cleared of traffic ahead of the pope’s drive to Simon Bolivar Park, where he performed a Mass before about 550,000 people.