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The Latest: Pope says 'thick darkness' threatens Colombia

Posted September 7

— The Latest on Pope Francis' visit to Colombia (all times local):

5:20 p.m. Pope Francis is celebrating a huge open-air Mass in Bogota's Simon Bolivar park and warning of the "thick darkness" that threatens Colombia with violence, corruption and vengeance.

Organizers had expected upward of 700,000 people for the Mass, but by the time it got underway Bogota's mayor tweeted the crowd was over a million. The sun broke through the rain clouds just as the Mass was getting underway.

In his homily, Francis denounced the "thick darkness" in Colombia and elsewhere that sparks violence and takes human lives. He said such darkness is a "thirst for vengeance and the hatred which stains the hands of those who would right wrongs on their own authority, the darkness of those who become numb to the pain of so many victims."

Francis is on a five-day visit to urge Colombians to resist the lure of vengeance so they can move on from Latin America's longest-running conflict.

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5 p.m.

The rain has stopped, the sun has peaked through the clouds and Pope Francis' first Mass in Colombia is getting under way.

Bogota's Simon Bolivar park was readied to receive 700,000 people for the liturgy but Bogota's mayor tweeted that as many as 1.3 million Catholic worshippers may have shown up.

Francis greeted a group of handicapped children after descending from the popemobile and as a symphonic orchestra played a stirring rendition of Beethoven's 9th symphony.

Among those in the crowd, Sebastian Ortiz was accompanying his 12-year-old cousin who has a health condition that has left him unable to walk and with limited mental capacity. He said he tried to get him as close as possible to Pope Francis in hope he would cure him and grant him a long life.

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3:45 p.m.

Pope Francis is praising women for being on the front lines of the Catholic Church in Latin America — and he's warning the region's bishops to value them more and not let them be "reduced to servants of our ingrained clericalism."

Francis told a gathering of the top cardinals and bishops from Latin America and the Caribbean that the church itself would lose its ability to be reborn without women. He said: "We have a grave obligation to understand, respect, appreciate and promote" all that women do for the church and society.

Francis has frequently praised the role his grandmother played in his own faith formation, and has said women should take on a greater decision-making role in the church. However, he has yet to appoint a woman to head a major Vatican office.

Like much of Latin America, Colombia is a deeply conservative, machista society where women often face discrimination, sexual violence and other forms of abuse. Colombia's peace accords sought to address gender issues and the particular way women suffered during the conflict.

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3:05 p.m.

Leading clergy from Venezuela are hoping to take advantage of Francis' visit to Colombia to bring attention to their country's plight.

Heading into a brief meeting with the Pope at the Vatican's embassy in Bogota, Cardinal Jorge Urosa, the archbishop of Caracas, described the situation in Venezuela — marked by the world's highest inflation, people picking through garbage and dying to lack of medicine — as "very grave."

Earlier in an interview with Bogota daily El Tiempo, he described President Nicolas Maduro as a "dictator" and accused the socialist leader of ignoring promises he made to the Vatican last year during a short-lived attempt at dialogue with the opposition sponsored by the Holy See. He said the church-backed charities were stepping in to assist Venezuelans in need.

"But what we're able to do is just a drop in the ocean when it's the government that's responsible for resolving the problem," he said.

The turmoil in Venezuela has been competing for Francis' attention while in Colombia. One little boy managed to hand the pope a Venezuelan flag during his visit Thursday to Bogota's cathedral and near Simon Bolivar park where some Venezuelans unfurled a giant banner asking Francis to help their country.

Urosa said Francis had requested Thursday's meeting, although officially the Vatican is only referring to the face time as a "brief greeting."

"It's a gift to us that he wants to hear what we have to say," said Cardinal Baltazar Porras, the archbishop of Merida.

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2:30 p.m.

Tens of thousands of people are streaming into Bogota's main park under a pouring rain for an outdoor Mass celebrated by Pope Francis that's dedicated to peace and reconciliation.

Many in the crowd arrived at Simon Bolivar Park at dawn Thursday and waited through the rain for the afternoon service, Francis' final major event of the day.

Carmen Contreras, a 72-year-old, traveled 18 hours with her family on a bus from Florencia for the Mass. She says: "Seeing the pope is a joy. Now I can die in peace."

Some in the crowd were Venezuelan refugees who have fled the food and medicine shortages, violent protests and soaring inflation across the border. They are hoping Francis offers them consolation about the deteriorating situation at home.

Refugee Dorian Gonzalez, who has been in Colombia for five months, says he hopes Francis gives some of his "goodness" to President Nicolas Maduro "because we are suffering."

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12:25 p.m.

Pope Francis is telling Colombia's bishops that they have a unique role to play in helping Colombians heal from a half-century of rebellion, saying they must show a "distinct kind of moral courage" to help Colombians overcome their base instincts of war and fear.

Francis also urged the church hierarchy to work for unity and communion in-house — a reference to the divisions even within the Catholic Church over the terms of the peace accord. Many conservative opponents of the deal — including clergy — oppose the generous terms offered to the guerrillas.

In a speech Thursday at the residence of Bogota's archbishop, Francis urged Colombia's 130 bishops to give their flock the courage "in taking the first step towards definitive peace and reconciliation, towards abdicating the method of violence and overcoming the inequalities at the root of so much suffering."

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11:20 a.m.

Pope Francis is urging young Colombians to take the lead in promoting forgiveness to help their country heal from a half-century of armed rebellion, saying youngsters more than adults are able to "leave behind what has hurt us and look to the future without the burden of hatred."

Thousands of Colombians waving handkerchiefs in the red, yellow and blue of Colombia's flag greeted Francis in Plaza Bolivar, the main square facing Bogota's cathedral. They interrupted him frequently with cheers, including when he repeated his famous line about how "only the young can make a mess!"

Francis praised young people for being able to move on from old resentments that "sicken the soul." He said Colombia's young must face the challenge of "passing onto us the youthful hope which is always ready to give others a second chance."

Francis is stressing a message of reconciliation during his five-day visit to Colombia in hopes of solidifying the country's year-old peace accord that is still bitterly contested by many Colombians who oppose the generous terms offered the rebels to lay down their arms.

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10:55 a.m.

Pope Francis is leading Colombians in prayers at the main cathedral in Bogota, with thousands of people jammed in the plaza outside waiting for him to emerge.

The crowd is so tightly packed that some people are fainting. At least four people have been taken away in stretchers.

Crowd control has been a challenge so far in Francis' visit, with exuberant Colombians trying to get close to history's first Latin American pope, who is seeking to encourage the nation's peace process. During Francis' first event of the day Thursday, a man broke through security and threw himself at Francis' feet on the red carpet as the pope arrived at the presidential palace.

Children on the stage then abandoned their positions to throw their arms around Francis in a series of unscripted embraces.

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9:40 a.m.

Pope Francis is urging Colombians come together to heal the divisions spawned by five decades of armed conflict and enact "just laws" to address the entrenched inequality that sparked the rebellion.

Francis made the remarks Thursday in an address to President Juan Manuel Santos and Colombia's political, cultural and economic elite at the presidential palace at the start of his first full day in Colombia. His five-day visit is aimed at helping solidify last year's peace accord between the government and leftist rebels that has bitterly divided the nation.

In his remarks, Francis urged all Colombians "to heal wounds, to build bridges, to strengthen relationships and support one another." He also called for legislation to correct what he said were the structural causes of poverty that sparked the conflict.

He said: "Let us not forget that inequality is the root of social ills."

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9:30 a.m.

President Juan Manuel Santos is embracing Francis' motto for his trip, calling on Colombians to "Take the First Step" and let go of much resentment stirred by decades of armed conflict.

In a speech Thursday to Francis from the presidential palace in Bogota, Santos said Colombia is an example to a world engulfed by conflict and war, a place where weapons are being traded for words and literally converted into monuments to peace.

Still, he acknowledged that much work remains to be done to overcome the bitter divisions created by a peace deal last year that conservative opponents see as too generous with leftist guerrillas behind scores of atrocities during the country's half-century conflict.

Santos said that "Thousands of lives have been saved, thousands of victims have been spared, but we still need to take that first, renewing step that is the most important of all: the step toward reconciliation."

He added that "silencing the guns is worthless if we remain armed in our hearts. Ending the war is worthless if we still see each other as enemies."

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8:40 a.m.

Pope Francis is waving to crowds from his car as he starts his first full day in Colombia, where he's stressing a message of reconciliation for a country emerging from five decades of armed conflict.

Hundreds of people are lining the motorcade route bringing him from the Vatican embassy to the presidential palace, where he'll meet with President Juan Manuel Santos and Colombian political and economic elite.

Hundreds of people also await him at the Casa Narino, some carrying crosses and portraits of the Argentine pope. In the crowd are soldiers with amputated limbs, disabled school children and dignitaries.

Francis has a packed day, delivering a speech to Santos as well as an address the crowd. Later he'll meet with bishops and cardinals from around the region. He'll end the day with a huge outdoor Mass in Bogota's Simon Bolivar Park.

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