Pope John Paul II on Sunday knelt on the desolate and still-dangerous mud bank where 23,000 Colombians were buried alive last November after a volcanic eruption and asked God to "dry the tears" of the survivors.
Lifted by helicopter from a nearby military air base to the grave of the once-thriving town of Armero, the visibly emotional Roman Catholic pontiff knelt at the foot of a towering concrete cross while a single bugler sounded "Last Post," the mournful death-knell played at military funerals in most of the world's armies.
"These your children, Father of bounty, fell like wheat into the bowels of the earth," John Paul prayed, "to sprout in the resurrection of the death.
"Father, rich in mercy, ease the pain of so many families, dry the tears of so many brothers, protect the many orphans who have been left alone."
Hundreds of Crosses
Scattered across the barren landscape of dried mud that inundated the town of 40,000 last Nov. 13 were hundreds of small cement and wood crosses erected by grief-stricken families as memorials to loved ones lost in the disaster and still buried beneath as much as 100 feet of settled dirt and debris.
The towering cross beneath which John Paul offered his prayer was erected recently at the exact spot where the small cross of the 90-foot-high church steeple of Armero poked forlornly through the mud after the Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted, melting the snow on its flanks and sending tons of water and mud onto the village below.
Fewer than 700 survivors were on hand for the brief ceremony, and even the Pope's long-planned remarks had to be abbreviated because of new scientific concerns that the volcano might erupt again. Colombian authorities asked that the ceremony be kept as brief as possible and be closed to the general public for safety reasons.
But despite the potential for another disaster in the area, the pontiff struck a note of hope in his prayer.
'Let a New City Rise Up'
"Through the solidarity of work and the constancy of the people of this land," he prayed, "let rise up as from the ashes a new city of your children and brothers, where fraternity reigns, families are renewed, tables are replete with bread, and the fields and hearths are filled with song."
Hopping across the volcano by helicopter to the similarly struck town of Chinchina, where more than 1,000 were killed by mud slides, the Pope said he had the desire to visit the devastated area as soon as he heard of the catastrophe last November.
"I came to sow words of hope in your believing hearts," he said in a speech to about 15,000 of the town's inhabitants, some of whom are refugees from Armero.
Later in the day, the pontiff took his first hard shot at Colombia's notorious drug dealers, who have made multibillion-dollar fortunes dealing in cocaine, largely to North America.
He compared drug trafficking to the slavery of the 17th Century.
"The greed for money seizes the hearts of many people and transforms them, through the drug trade, into traffickers of the freedom of their brothers, whom they enslave in a slavery at times more frightful than that of the black slaves," John Paul told an audience of nuns in the Caribbean port city of Cartegena.
"The slave traders kept their victims from the exercise of freedom. The drug traffickers lead their (victims) to the very destruction of the personality."
Although the pontiff has said little concerning Colombia's massive illegal drug problems during his weeklong pastoral visit to the country, members of his entourage discouraged speculation that he was soft-pedaling the subject and suggested that he would address it more fully before leaving the country today.