Pope Francis arrived Wednesday in the Colombian capital to spread a message of reconciliation as this country consolidates a peace process that ends 53-years of internal conflict.
At 4:35 p.m., after a 12-hour flight from Rome to Bogotá on board Alitalia flight 4000 -also known as “Pastor One”-, the Argentine Pontiff Jorge Mario Bergoglio descended 20 steps from the Airbus on what turned out to be a sunny afternoon in this high-altitude Andean city, and to start the first papal visit to this country in more than three decades.
In 1989, Pope John Paul II visited Colombia, and an area of devastation when an avalanche four years earlier struck the town of Armero, killing 20,000.
Pope Francis’ five day trip to Colombia, includes two days in this capital of nine million inhabitants, and a visit Friday to Villavicencio, the departmental capital of Meta, some 80 kilometers east of Bogotá.
On Saturday, the 80-year-old Pontiff visits Colombia’s second most important city, Medellín, where he will preside over an outdoor mass on the grounds of the Enrique Olaya Herrera airport. On Sunday, Pope Francis heads to the colonial port city of Cartagena, on the Caribbean, before departing back to Rome that evening.
After months of arrangements and an enormous logistical operation by the mayoralty of Enrique Peñalosa to prepare the capital for the Pope’s historic visit, an estimated 500,000 turned out to catch a glimpse of the Pontiff, as he headed 15 kilometers from the airport to the colonial center in the emblematic Pope mobile. The massive turn-out lined both sides of the Avenida El Dorado, and, at times, forced the Pope’s open vehicle to stop, as police and security details moved crowds to the side in order to allow the Pope to advance towards the Apostolic Nunciature.
Pope Francis was greeted on a red carpet by President Juan Manuel Santos and First Lady María Clemencia Rodríguez de Santos. The Bogotá Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir of the Opera of Colombia performed music by Vivaldi and Beethoven as the plane came to standstill on the tarmac of the Catam air base, within El Dorado International Airport. The pilots, shortly after landing, hoisted the flags of Colombia and Vatican from the cockpit windows.
After the head of the Vatican State and the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Juan Manuel Santos exchanged words, the Pontiff greeted 13-year old Emmanuel Rojas. The boy is the son of the vice presidential candidate Clara Rojas, and was born in captivity, after Rojas and her presidential running mate, Ingrid Betancourt, were kidnapped by a front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla in Eastern Colombia.
The Pontiff was also welcomed by a dance ensemble from the southern city of Cali. The dancers, children and adults, performed a typical cumbia. In an emotional encounter with members of Colombia’s security forces maimed in combat, Pope Francis blessed bottles of water, and received flowers from widows of service men and women killed in combat. Several children with disabilities were blessed and embraced by the Pontiff.
Almost an hour after departing Catam air base, and being greeted along the entire journey to the words Francisco! Francisco!, Pope Francis arrived at the Apostolic Nunciature where a group of vulnerable youth, among them rehabilitated street children, thanked the Pontiff for visiting Colombia, remarking that they have “taken the first step” to not letting vice take hold of their lives. The youngsters then handed over a typical woolly ruana – a thick poncho of the central Andean highlands – to the Pope, who wore it over the iconic white gown.
“Let’s take the first step,” is the official message of this pastoral journey, and in a video message to Colombians on Monday, Pope Francis praised his fellow South Americans for “working to achieve peace.”