A newsmagazine’s cover hailing the papal visit to Colombia said it all: “Francis Superstar!” And after as many as 1.1 million faithful braved rain and fog Saturday morning to attend an outdoor Mass he celebrated on the runways of a downtown airport, who could argue?
The turnout at the third stop of the pope’s five-day visit to this Andean country followed similarly crowded religious services in Bogota that attracted 1 million and in Villavicencio that drew 400,000, indicating that Pope Francis’ mega-celebrity status only seems to grow.
The faithful began arriving a day before the Mass began, many huddling in plastic rain ponchos. By 7 a.m. Saturday, the airport and its 1.5-mile runway was a solid mass of humanity, and officials shut the gates. As many as 50,000 waited in line, hoping to be allowed in.
“It’s a unique moment that we won’t see again,” said Judy Cruz, a translator from the Amazon River port town of Leticia, her disappointment evident as she stood in line. “For us Catholics, he is the representative of God on earth.”
Others described their need to be present for the Mass less in terms of the pope’s status atop the 1.2-billion member church and more because of his personal charisma and concern for the world’s underclasses.
“You believe him because it comes from the spiritual, not the political aspect,” said Jorge Ramirez, a Medellin fruit distributor.
“You feel a closeness to him because of his humility and his genuine concern for the poor, the handicapped and the disadvantaged,” said Wilson Afanador, a metallurgical engineer from Bucaramanga, as he waited in line to enter the airport grounds.
Arriving at the airport 45 minutes late from Bogota because of rains and heavy cloud cover, Pope Francis mounted his popemobile and zig-zagged his way through the enormous throngs to afford a glance to as many as possible. Ecstatic screaming crowds waved white cloths in gestures of peace.
The pope urged his massive audience Saturday at Olaya Herrera Airport to seek spiritual rebirth through reconciliation. His urgings seem to resonate in a country exhausted by decades of civil conflict but wary of terms of a peace deal signed last year with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia that many think is too generous.
In his homily, he also urged Colombians to take up religious vocations and commit to helping the disadvantaged as a means of spiritual renewal.
“Don’t be indifferent to the sufferings of the underprivileged,” the pope implored. “Have the evangelical courage [to help] the many who hunger for God and for the dignity they have lost. … The church is for everyone, the healthy and the sick, the good and the bad.”
In choosing Medellin as one of only four cities on his five-day Colombia tour, the pope highlighted what a different kind of rebirth can accomplish. Once the murder capital of the world and home to notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar and his global cocaine empire, the city of 3.7 million has become a beacon of Latin American urban renewal.
To be sure, tourists still flock to “Pablo Tours” to see where Escobar lived, was killed in a police shootout in 1993 and subsequently was buried. Two decades after his death, his life and criminal enterprise still inspire Hollywood movies, including two films starring Tom Cruise and Javier Bardem premiering this month.
But as the murder rate has plummeted, Medellin also is becoming known for its innovative mass transit system, extensive public arts program and an industrial base known for hard work and enterprise. A $100-million research project seeking an Alzheimer’s cure and co-financed by the U.S. National Institutes of Health is based here.
Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild and sunny climate, Medellin in recent years has hosted international conferences such as the World Economic Forum and the World Tourism Organization.
Medellin has long been known as a highly Catholic city in a highly Catholic country, where at least 75% of the population of 47 million describe themselves as members. With more than 23,000 priests and nuns, Colombia also is an important supplier of vocational personnel to the church, ranking third among Latin American countries behind Brazil and Mexico.
At Friday’s Mass in Villavicencio, a steamy oil town in eastern Meta province, Francis beatified two of Colombia’s martyred priests, Bishop Jesus Emilio Jaramillo and the Rev. Pedro Ramirez, who were victims of armed conflict, in 1989 and 1948, respectively.
In attendance as special invitees were 6,000 victims of Colombia’s bloody violence, many of them missing limbs. On the makeshift altar at Malocas Park was a mutilated crucifix from the town of Bojaya, a town in western Choco province where 119 people were killed in 2002 when a bomb exploded in the church where they had taken refuge from fighting.
In the final leg of his Colombia trip, the pope is scheduled to travel to the historic walled city of Cartagena on Sunday to endorse religious vocations. He will pay special homage at the church of St. Peter Claver, Colombia’s first and most important saint. Claver was a 17th century Spanish priest who ministered to slaves as they disembarked from horrific sea journeys from Africa.
Francis boards a late-evening flight Sunday from Cartagena for Rome, ending his 20th trip outside Italy since ascending to the papacy in 2013.
Kraul is a special correspondent.
2:30 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details that include the pope’s meeting with victims of Colombia’s bloody guerrilla war.
This article was originally published at 12:35 p.m.