Guest Columnist What a papal visit means to Colombians

Locals await the arrival of Pope Francis in Catama Colombia on Sept 8 2017 Credit Eduardo Berdejo 1 CNA Locals await the arrival of Pope Francis in Villavicencio, Colombia, Sept. 8, 2017. / Eduardo Berdejo/CNA.

Pope Francis has arrived in Colombia for an unprecedented four-day trip. The press is highlighting the peace accord between the country's president Manuel Santos and leftist guerrillas, but for most Colombians who will attend the Pope's gatherings and Masses, this visit is simply about "El Papa" and his tender care for their souls.

Colombians are hardworking people of faith who are too often seen through the lens of the country's civil strife and drug wars. That the Pope would visit their beautiful country produces great joy and engenders pride and patriotism. This visit is a great moment for the country, but the true importance of the visit is its significance in the personal lives of Colombians.

I lived in Colombia for almost thirteen years, deep in the coffee-growing region of the country. Despite a shortage of laborers to pick the world's most prized coffee beans, a "good" coffee picker can only make around $20 a day. The pickers work a twelve-hour day in the blistering heat, tormented by snakes and biting insects. The appealing image of Juan Valdez, with his donkey and wide hat, belies the sweaty, grim reality.

This reality extends beyond the coffee fields, as the meager wage earned by a coffee picker is typical. The country's minimum wage is about $250 a month. A common sight at the grocery store is a customer using her day's wages to buy the family's food for the following day: a couple pieces of chicken, a half-pound bag of rice, a potato, and a sprig of cilantro.

Yet despite such conditions of bare subsistence, tenuous internal security, and a poor international reputation, Colombia is consistently listed among the happiest nations.

The Pope's visit to Colombia will make a happy people even happier. His visit promises four days of positive news reports on Colombia that will be seen both within the country and internationally, as well as the possibility for thousands of people to see the head of the Catholic Church and receive his blessing.

The last town I lived in was Chinchina, a small town surrounded by coffee and plantain fields. Saint Pope John Paul II visited Chinchina in 1986, the last time a pope visited Colombia. During his visit, the Holy Father mourned with its inhabitants the great losses suffered after the eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz, the nearby volcano that sent down ash and water upon thousands, causing massive devastation.

Chinchina commemorated the Pope's visit with a plaque hung prominently at the entrance of its main church, now elevated to the status of a Minor Basilica, and easily the most beautiful structure in an otherwise impoverished region.

Last year, Chinchina celebrated the 30-year anniversary of JPII's visit with speeches, parades, and a commemorative Mass at the Basilica. Elders recalled the many efforts made to prepare for the visit, the general excitement of all the inhabitants, and the sense of honor felt in hosting His Holiness and other pilgrims from different parts of the country.

For these humble people, daily life is generally void of variety and excitement. Thirty years after a papal visit, they are still awakened by the memory of witnessing a beloved, sainted pope, and taking part in the history of the Catholic Church.

For Americans, a papal visit is an exciting event that one might be able to attend depending on where one lives. For a smaller, developing nation like Colombia, a visit from the Pope is a defining moment for the country and its people. Francis' visit will likely generate extensive news reports and commentary about political, economic, and environmental issues at play in Colombia.

And for all the Colombian people – rich, poor, young, and old – the visit of Pope Francis to their "Beloved Land" will undoubtedly mark their lives forever.

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is Legal Advisor for The Catholic Association Foundation.

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