Pope Francis will use his first full day in Colombia to send a message of unity, planting a tree of peace and saying a Mass to preach reconciliation in a nation bitterly divided after five decades of war.
Francis received a tumultuous welcome on Wednesday afternoon. Screaming crowds mobbed the popemobile carrying the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics as it made its way slowly from the airport to the Vatican Embassy in central Bogota.
Faithful threw flowers and held up children to be kissed.
“Don’t let anyone steal your happiness, don’t let anyone steal your hope,” Francis told young people outside the embassy, his residence during the trip.
Francis, making his 20th foreign trip since becoming pontiff in 2013 and his fifth to his native Latin America, will spend all of Thursday in Bogota and then make day visits to the cities of Villavicencio, Medellin and Cartagena before leaving for Rome on Sunday night.
The Argentine pope will hold private meetings with President Juan Manuel Santos and Catholic bishops. He will also meet bishops from Venezuela, which has gone through months of protests against President Nicolas Maduro, who has tightened his hold on power amid an escalating economic crisis.
Francis will encourage reconciliation for Colombians as they prepare to receive 7,000 former FARC rebels into society and aim to repair divisions after a war that killed more than 220,000 people and displaced millions over five decades.
During his stay in Bogota – whose theme is “Builders of Peace, Promoters of Life” – Francis will visit the colonial cathedral to pray before a painting of Our Lady of Chiquinquira, the patron saint of overwhelmingly Catholic Colombia.
The afternoon Mass in the capital’s sprawling Simon Bolivar Park is expected to draw more than a million people.
Former fighters from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, now a civilian political party, hope to use words instead of weapons to change Colombia.
But many are furious that under the 2016 peace deal FARC leaders accused of kidnapping, displacements and murder will avoid jail sentences and instead may receive seats in congress.
Anger over the accord has not dampened enthusiasm for the pope’s visit. Tens of thousands are expected to pack the main cathedral square carrying rosaries, waving flags and wearing T-shirts and baseball caps bearing Francis’ image.
People were already saving spaces along the route to Bolivar Park, nearly 24 hours before the Mass was due to start.
“It’s fantastic, we’re so happy, he radiates love, mercy, compassion, joy, peace for the Colombian people,” said economist Maria Claudia Garavito, 57.
“The important thing is that people, politicians and civil society disarm our hearts so that we can move forward for the union and reconciliation of the country.”