A Catholic priest has been named the second in command of the National Police of Colombia.
In his three-decade-long career in the police force, Major General Silverio Ernesto Suárez has often found himself in perilous situations on the front lines of Colombia’s battle against illegal drug trafficking.
Once he was in a police helicopter that was nearly shot down by guerillas. In another instance, in the 1990s, a car bomb blew up the seven-story police building where he was posted.
But unlike his colleagues in the police force, Suárez can hear confessions and offer last rites because he is a Catholic priest.
Suárez told CNA that he sees his dual roles of priest and police general as a vocation to “save souls and save lives.”
He did not feel the call to become a Catholic priest until an experience he had after entering the police force at the age of 32. After an older police officer was covered in gasoline, set on fire, and died from his burns, Suárez spent a lot of time reflecting on “how ephemeral life can be.”
In conversations with the general chaplain of the police, he rethought what he wanted his life’s mission to be.
“What struck me the most was the police motto, which was ‘God and country.’ I wanted to give my life to serve God and serve my country. This was what I was looking for in my life,” Suárez said.
He had already received a solid Catholic formation from his family and as a layman at an Opus Dei center that had cultivated in him a love for the Eucharist and the sacraments.
Yet Suárez faced some hurdles in his newfound desire to become a priest. The minister of defense rejected his request to enter the seminary for the Military Ordinariate of Colombia.
“I gave our Lord a blank check,” Suárez said. “If it is my decision and it is not from God, it will not happen. I abandoned myself in the hands of God … and from one moment to the next, the doors miraculously began to open.”
Twenty days after Suárez’s original application had been rejected, the minister of defense fell into a major scandal and was replaced. Suárez’s appeal to enter the seminary was accepted.
Suárez was ordained a priest at the age of 39 after completing training not only in philosophy and theology but also to be a police captain.
“I only slept three hours at night,” he recalled. “I did my second year of theology at the same time as my police promotion course.”
After his ordination, Suárez understood his mission was to help transform “the hearts of policemen.”
He volunteered for police patrol shifts from midnight to 6 a.m. While on patrol, he had long conversations with the men he was posted with; sometimes, he would hear their confessions or invite them to pray the rosary together.
One particular conversation with a colleague stands out in his mind: “Two days later, he was killed in a terrorist attack and we buried him.”
“I have seen so many comrades become victims of violence, who have been kidnapped and … were kept in the worst living conditions,” he added.
As a priest, Suárez also comforts and ministers to the families of his colleagues who have been kidnapped or killed.
In Colombia and other South American countries including Chile and Venezuela, it is not unusual for priests to be full members of the police force, Suárez said. He insists that “being a policeman and a priest is absolutely compatible.”
“What is the mission of the priest? Above all, serve God and serve your fellow men. What is the mission of the police? … To save lives, to defend life,” he said.
When asked about the use of violence, Suárez said that when his life has been in danger, he has had to defend himself, but fortunately, he has not had to kill anyone.
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He has also devoted much of his time to serving prisoners and perpetrators detained by the police.
“In the detention rooms, there is barbaric overcrowding. In places where there were 150 inmates … they had to sleep squatting or sitting down because there was no place to lie down,” he said. “I bring them [clean] clothes. Many of them are very poor.”
He also offers Masses for the detainees and hears confessions. In some cases, Suárez has paid the bail, something that frustrated his police colleagues.
Suárez said that corruption within the police force is a serious issue, which is why he believes that good police training and formation are so important.
For the past year, Suárez, now 61 years old, was assigned to Rome, where he has been working to strengthen relations between the Colombian police force and the Italian police through a joint training program. The posting also gave him the opportunity to meet Pope Francis.
Drug trafficking continues to be the biggest problem facing Colombia, Suárez said, and the death toll inflicted by the cartels has been enormous.
In his new role as a major general and the second in command of the national police, Suárez will focus much of his work on Colombia’s difficult peace process.
“For the sake of finding peace and reconciliation, the effort is worth it,” he said.
Almudena Martínez-Bordiú contributed to this report.
Courtney Mares is a Rome Correspondent for Catholic News Agency. A graduate of Harvard University, she has reported from news bureaus on three continents and was awarded the Gardner Fellowship for her work with North Korean refugees.
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