ACN Interview: Wednesday 23rd May 2012
While there is injustice in Columbia, there will be no peace
Despite Colombia’s beauty, this country has a history of more than 40 years of violence and armed struggle, of kidnappings and of many lives lost. Drug-trafficking, guerrillas, unemployment and forced displacement are some of the great problems which this country has been combating for decades. Maria Lozano interviewed monsignor Guillermo Orozco Montoya, bishop of Girardota for the weekly program “Where God Weeps,” in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need.
Q: You were born in 1946, a time when years of much violence began in Colombia; in fact, that period was called: “The Violence.” Since those years – the end of the 40s – up to now Colombia has scarcely seen peace. Does a person who grew up always living or hearing this message of violence, of terror not have a thirst, and a great yearning for peace?
A: The yearning is always constantly in one’s head: “when will we have peace in Colombia?” And every Colombian experiences this, because in some way, directly or indirectly, we have suffered the scourge of war, especially in recent times when we all felt kidnapped; when practically we couldn’t go out to any village, because there was the real risk that the guerrillas would appear and kidnap a whole group of people.
Q: We will speak about this reality a little later; first I wanted to ask you, how did your priestly vocation come about? How did you discover your call?
A: That’s a question that’s been posed to me more than once and I only learned how to answer it a few years ago, exactly 17 years after my ordination. Before, when I was asked about the history of my vocation, I answered “I have no history,” but later I learned from someone that my mother prayed every day to the Lord for her son to be a priest. I simply liked being a priest from the time I was small, and I became a priest, but then I came across a beautiful prayer of a mother for her son to be a priest, a prayer which my mother kept, and I understood that she prayed to the Lord for her son to be a priest and she obtained it.
Q: Monsignor, since the middle of 2009 you have been bishop of Girardota near Medellin, more or less, no? To the north of Medellin.
A: Very close, about 30 to 40 minutes by car, from Medellin to Girardota.
Q: However, before you were in San Jose de Guaviare, which is more than 400 kilometers south of Bogota.
A: Almost 800 kilometers from Medellin.
Q: Almost 800 kilometers from Medellin, it is an absolutely different reality, no?
A: Yes, when I was appointed bishop, the Lord Nuncio said to me: “Monsignor, your life has changed,” and I said to him, “yes, my life has changed.” First because I was not used to working in a mission area and less so in an area with a guerrilla presence as is Guaviare, with so many problems. However, I arrived with the conviction that I was going with a mission that the Lord had entrusted to me and I was there four years. I felt very well, I was never afraid, despite the problems. In Guaviare there was the problem of drug-trafficking, of the planting of coca, not as intensely as before, because the government is pursuing it, but the guerrillas were dedicated to obliging farmers to plant coca so that they could harvest it and there were permanent threats by the guerrillas to those who didn’t pay extortion.
Q: Were you also affected by this personally during your years in Guaviare?
A: I was also threatened personally by the guerrillas because they were asking me for money. The diocese has land with cattle with which it supports the parishes; much of what comes out of there goes to pay for the expenses of the diocese. The guerrillas said that I had to pay them something for each head of cattle and I said to them: “not a single cent, because we don’t evangelize speaking of justice and of honesty on one hand and at the same time support those who are violent.” Then they said to me: “you can stay in San Jose but take care because if you don’t pay you will be a military objective.”
Q: However, the situation has improved in recent years.
A: Where I am now in Girardota, I had already been 17 years ago as rector and at that time there were guerrillas, paramilitaries. The situation was somewhat like that of Guaviare, though not as critical. However, that was before. Now, after eight years of the previous government with the policy of democratic security, the guerrillas have been cornered again in the jungle and have left the villages. The problems remained, however, and there, in my diocese, there is much poverty, the consequence of so many deaths and so much vengeance, but one can work calmly, which is very different.
Q: Since the 80s, drug-trafficking has changed the life of the whole of Colombia. How influential has the fact been that drug trafficking has boomed in Colombia?
A: What has changed is the mentality in regard to values, especially among the youth. When a young man knows he can get easy money through coca, the culture of easy money, of illegality, and of death begins to impose itself. From this was born what we call the sicariato, i.e.
Q: From what you are telling me, it’s also the culture of death that is invading these countries, because the value of life is minimal.
A: In Colombia, drug -trafficking has had a huge effect on culture. One watches television and sees that every day a student is killed for his cell phone, or stabbed because he did not lend one thousand pesos. This is precisely the fruit of that culture where it is known that by threatening others they can destroy them. We have also been affected by it. For example, I had just sent a priest to a mission area and 15 days later he was already back because he received a message – supposedly from a guerrilla – which said: ”you are not welcome. You have eight days to disappear or we will make you disappear.” Then we learnt that it wasn’t a guerrilla, because the guerrillas know the work priests do and they told the bishop they had nothing against the priest and that he could return. But one is received like that anywhere, not just in those areas. They instill fear in me; I can stay there, run the risk, because it can be simply a threat, a simple threat of no importance, but it can also be someone who wants to destroy some one. That is the culture, or better said, the sub-culture of death.
Q: What is the Church’s answer? How does she try to transmit the culture of life, of the value of life, of human life, no matter whose life it is?
A: I think what is fundamental is the subject of values, because there is crisis when there are no values. But here is the problem: where is the culture of values generated if not in the family? And if there are problems already in the family, we must begin to work from the base of the family. As bishop, I have personally dedicated myself -- and began to do so in Guaviare --, to a fundamental work with couples – not only married ones, but also those in a free union – addressing topics such as learning to live as a couple, to be reconciled, to rescue the values of the couple’s life and thus to form values in children.
Q: There is in Colombia the so-called Commission of National Conciliation. What is this initiative? Who thought of it? I think the Catholic Church is part of this Commission.
A: Not only is it part of it but the initiative came from the Church, concretely, from the Colombian Episcopal Commission which created the Commission of National Conciliation, which simply seeks, as the word states, to conciliate the two sides; it seeks a meeting between the government and the armed groups.
Q: And a relatively short while ago the Commission presented a National Agreement of Peace and Reconciliation. What points - because I think there is a minimum of points-, would be necessary to reach a situation of peace in Colombia?
A: The Commission propitiated that agreement, but there was participation by the whole country, all the social classes, all groups, all creeds. There were more than 300 working tables with more than 7,500 leaders of the country who, in turn, became multipliers of that work. Thus an agreement was reached on the minimum needed to be able to obtain peace in Colombia. There is talk of eight minimums. I could highlight some of them. For example, there is talk of a policy of reconciliation and peace that will lead to negotiation.
Q: To what are you referring?
A: Well, for example, now with this government there is talk, with very good will, of the Law of Lands and the Law of Victims. What is the Law of Lands? It is that the government commits itself to return lands to those who have been deprived of them , either because they are recovered from those who took them away or because they are assigned lands that the government itself purchases, but the dilemma is precisely there. Where is the money for this? It would take thousands of millions because they are talking about those affected since the year 1980. If they go further back, you can imagine …
Q: And the Law of Victims?
A: The Law of Victims tries to have the latter have access to all that which, due to violence, they were unable to access: to have access to a more fitting life, to be given a house to live in, to be given health care and social security, to be given opportunities to study. If the government is able to do this, long-term, then a great step will have been taken and this will facilitate reconciliation because, therein the Church has her role of helping people to forgive those who now want peace and who express it, in this case, through the government when it wishes to compensate these people for the damages they have suffered.
Q: And that would be what they call a “minimum”?
A: Precisely. Another minimum is equity in the access to opportunities to obtain a fitting life for all Colombians. Here in Colombia there is talk of two Colombias: of those who live in the suburbs and those who live in the city; of those who life in marginalized areas and those who life in rich areas. An attempt is made to achieve equity in rights, opportunities, education with complete coverage and quality for all, integral agrarian reform and such like.
Q: Of course, that would be a plan that encompasses a lot, but which would be, let’s say, the future of the new Colombia.
A: And which would be what would prepare the environment to do away with all the arguments of those who are violent on one hand, and to facilitate reconciliation on the other.
Q: I remember that Blessed John Paul II visited Colombia 25 years ago and his message was also a message of peace and reconciliation, but I also remember that Paul VI was in Colombia as well.
A: Yes, Paul VI was in Colombia in the year 1968 and he left a phrase that we have not forgotten: “while there is injustice in Colombia, there will be no peace.” There has been much talk of this because the problem is not only one of injustice; we see countries where there is greater injustice than in Colombia and yet they do not have the problem of violence that exists in Colombia. Undoubtedly, many of the problems are generated by corruption, because Colombia’s number one problem, undoubtedly, is corruption.
Q: To seek justice and reappraise the gift of life would be the basis for that new order, to create a peaceful society, no?
A: I would say, in one word, to rescue the values, to return to the values of the Gospel, respect for life, dignity, and respect for the other. We need an evangelization or a culture that will lead to tolerance and to faith in God. Because faith in God is precisely one of the reasons why, despite the circumstances, the country continues to be a viable country. A moment came when it was said that it had become unviable and yet, despite the problems, Colombia appears today as the fourth country of the world where people are happiest with life.
Q: And one of the countries with most vocations in the Church. We have spoken a lot about the shadows, and not much about the lights of Colombia. However, it is one of the countries that generates more vocations for the whole world. There are many Colombian priests and women Religious throughout the world.
A: Indeed, and among us, the bishops, there is a great desire -- and we are sowing this in the seminarians --, for vocations not only to respond to our needs, but to go out and to open up to the world. A concrete example: my diocese has 400 priests and half of them are missionaries in Africa, Europe and other countries of Latin America.
This interview was conducted by Maria Lozano for "Where God Weeps," a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
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