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Colombian priest works for recovery from civil war in his homeland

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Roller

By Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Father Sterlin Londono has been a priest for 21 years among his fellow Afro-Colombians in his home region of Choco in Colombia, which is rich in gold -- but also rich in coca.

Choco also is home to Father Londono's Diocese of Quibdo -- and to a rebel group still trying to find its own way in the midst of a three-year-old peace process that has emphasized reconciliation between the people who work the land, the rebel groups that tried to take the land, and the government, which has a minimal presence in the region.

The work "is very enriching," Father Londono said through an interpreter during a Sept. 18 interview with Catholic News Service in Washington, where he was speaking as part of an annual Washington Office on Latin America symposium on Colombia, "Protecting Peace: Progress and Challenge for the Full Implementation of the 2016 Colombia Peace Accords."

During his presentation, he told of a FARC rebel -- FARC is the Spanish acronym for Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- who had taken part in a killing in the region several years ago. In 2017, a year after the peace accord was reached, the rebel returned to Colombia from Cuba, where he had been in hiding, Father Londono said.

"He did not know what would happen," the priest told his audience in Spanish. "He wanted to apologize" for his role, "but what if the people rejected his apology?" Worse yet, Father Londono suggested, what if it were a trick and the man would have to face justice for his crime?

"The biggest surprise" the rebel had, according to Father Londono, was that "the people listened. They wanted to hear what he had to say. Everybody has a truth; they wanted to hear his truth."

Despite three years of peace following armed conflict that dates back to the 1960s, Colombia has its work cut out for it. There are 8 million internally displaced people in Colombia -- a figure higher than Syria or Iraq, which were ravaged by multisided civil war earlier this decade. Moreover, roughly 1.75 million Venezuelans have poured across the border into Colombia seeking relief from their own country's political and economic turmoil.

Beyond FARC, there is a paramilitary group, the National Liberation Army, known by its Spanish acronym ELN, operating in Choco. It, too, wants to be involved in the peace process, Father Londono told CNS, but it has not decided what its priorities are in negotiating an accord.

In his multiple roles as pastor, advocate and mediator, Father Londono has observed how the treatment of past wrongs can have an impact on the present.

His region is still dealing with the consequences of a 2002 bomb blast that killed about 75 people and wounded twice as many. The dead, many of whom could not be positively identified, were buried, but later exhumed and the remains sent to Medellin, where autopsy specialists determined that some people's remains had been inadvertently mixed in with those of others.

A more painstaking process of identification of the remains is nearly complete. Father Londono said he hopes the remains can be reburied in November. "The families have been grieving, and not grieving, for a long time. And the survivors," he said, "they need a chance to complete their grief."

Father Londono's brother was himself killed in the civil war, and the priest has been subject to numerous death threats. That has not appeared to deter him in the slightest.

Both Pope Francis and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. inspire Father Londono's work for peace and reconciliation.

The memorial to Rev. King in Washington appeared on a slide during the priest's presentation at the symposium. Father Londono said he greatly admired the civil rights figure's focus on nonviolence, and sees Rev. King's "I Have a Dream" speech as embodying the principles of equality he wants to see embraced in Colombia.

Besides being "the first pope from Latin America," Father Londono said, Pope Francis' theological worldview comes "from the peripheries" and from his calls for peace and justice as well as for environmental protection.

To mark his 20th anniversary in the priesthood, Father Londono said he was able to accompany the pope and concelebrate Mass with him when Pope Francis visited Colombia in 2017. "It was a great thing to share the holy Eucharist with him," he added.

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Copyright © 2019 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at [email protected]


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Amazon inhabitants hope synod will address lack of priests

IMAGE: CNS photo/Junno Arocho Esteves

By Junno Arocho Esteves

QUITO, Ecuador (CNS) -- The upcoming Synod of Bishops for the Amazon will focus on the devastating effects of climate change on the environment and on indigenous communities, but it also will look at ways to meet the spiritual needs of the region's people.

One of the big challenges in evangelization and ministry is the lack of missionaries and priests, which some people in the region believe can be resolved by the ordaining of married "viri probati," or men of proven virtue.

The ordination of married "viri probati" would "respond to a concrete challenge in a concrete reality, for example, in the Amazon," Spanish Bishop Rafael Cob, apostolic vicar of Puyo, told journalists in Quito Sept. 14.

The journalists were on a study trip organized by REPAM, the Pan-Amazonian Church Network, in advance of the synod Oct. 6-27.

"The Amazon is a geographically difficult region to evangelize first because of its distance, its inaccessibility," the bishop said. But there also is a "lack of candidates who can or want to be priests with that discipline (celibacy). So, logically, the church is looking for new methods to respond to concrete challenges."

The synod's 45-page working document, published by the Vatican June 17, suggested studying "the possibility of priestly ordination for elders -- preferably indigenous, respected and accepted by the community -- even if they have an established and stable family."

While Pope Francis has made it clear that he did not agree with allowing "optional celibacy" for priests, he did say he was open to studying the possibility of ordaining married men for very remote locations, such as the Amazon and the Pacific islands, where Catholic communities seldom have Mass because there are no priests.

One of those remote locations is the Kichwa indigenous community of Sarayaku, located deep in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon region and accessible only by small plane or a four-hour canoe ride.

Franco Tulio Viteri Gualinga, former president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon and a member of the Sarayaku community, told journalists Sept. 17 that sometimes a priest or a bishop will come every two weeks or sometimes just once a month.

In the absence of a priest, a nun living in the village will lead the community in a liturgy of the word, he said.

When asked about the possibility of having an ordained married elder person in the community, Viteri said, "that's what the church needs to do." He cited the example of his uncle, who is a catechist in Sarayaku, as a possible candidate.

However, for 58-year-old Sister Rosa Elena Pico, ordaining married men is not the only solution in an area that is "a challenging place to evangelize."

Sister Pico, a member of the Missionaries of Mary Co-Redemptrix, and two other sisters arrived in Sarayaku in 2017 and often lead the Liturgy of the Word in the absence of a priest.

While nearly all the area's inhabitants identify as Catholic, many prefer to keep the church's influence on the Sarayaku's culture at arm's length, she said Sept. 18.

"Many do not want to commit to what the church demands," Sister Pico told journalists.

One example is that out of the 1,400 members of the Sarayaku indigenous community, only six couples have received the sacrament of marriage. Many of the others, she said, believe that people who marry eventually will separate or divorce and would not be able to keep the lifelong bond of sacramental marriage.

Although she said she feels welcome in the community, she said she was asked to leave on two occasions for explaining the church's teaching on marriage. Nevertheless, she told them she would stay "until the bishop tells me to leave."

Sister Pico said that Christian formation, particularly among those who want to fulfill a ministry within the community, was very important in the region and that while there is a lack of priests, ordination of married "viri probati" isn't the only solution.

"I believe that it is necessary that if there isn't a priest, there must be somebody who should be a representative, for example, a permanent deacon who can administer the sacraments," she said. "There should be permanent deacons in the communities."

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju


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Copyright © 2019 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at [email protected]


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