Ministering Among Guerillas and Drug Fields

Colombian Bishop Says God’s Assistance Warded Off Fear

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SAN JOSÉ DEL GUAVIARE, Colombia, MARCH 10, 2010 ( Most bishops don’t have to pay for permission to visit their flocks, but Bishop Guillermo Orozco Montoya was expected to. He refused.

Those demanding money were the guerrillas of the region of San José del Guaviare, one of the poorest regions of Colombia, where the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) operate and where drug producers grow their crops.

The Diocese of San José del Guaviare is formed by just 15 parishes spread across more than 16,000 square miles. A population of 120,000 (according to 2004 data) that is more than 90% Catholic is served by 23 priests.

Bishop Orozco characterizes the population as made up mainly of settlers «who arrived from different areas of the country with an adventurous spirit and the desire to obtain easy money through illicit crops.»

The region thus «lacks many Christian values,» the bishop admits, but adds that «it has a great religious sense and many of [the people] are close to the Church.»

For Bishop Orozco, the most difficult part about his ministry in a context like this is dealing with the FARC. He laments not being able to personally visit the majority of the rural communities «because of the guerilla threat, which put as a condition the payment of extortion.»

«Fortunately,» the optimistic prelate reflected, «the threat was only for the bishop and not for the priests.»

Another difficulty is «coexisting with a local government saturated with corruption,» he says.

But despite living with the impossibility of «trespassing» on his own diocesan territory, Bishop Orozco described his four years as the prelate of San José del Guaviare as «very interesting.» And he says the most beautiful part of the assignment was «counting on God’s assistance […] to work and manage problems without having sleepless nights or giving in to fear.»

Since February, the 63-year-old prelate is preparing to leave behind his ministry among the guerillas and the drug fields.

Benedict XVI appointed him to the Diocese of Girardota, where he will take up his post on April 10.

He leaves with the satisfaction of having «offered the priests a good service of permanent formation and having implemented serious programs in favor of the families of Guaviare.»

Now, Girardota promises to be an entirely different episcopal experience. Just 16 miles from Medellin, the city is characterized by the profound faith of its inhabitants. The shrine of the Fallen Lord of Girardota is there, visited annually by thousands of pilgrims and considered a mediator for hundreds of miracles and favors.

Bishop Orozco will return to his alma mater, Christ the Priest seminary, where he studied philosophy years ago and where he would later serve as a formator.

He admits he’s received the change of assignment «with great joy,» seeing it as a «special grace of the Lord, because I will be able to work without threats or restrictions in a place I know very well, given that for six years I was rector of the diocesan seminary.»

He expects, however, to continue with two priorities from San José del Guaviare: priests and families.

My expectations, he said, are «closeness to the diocesan seminary, as being prepared there are the future evangelizers; likewise, the pastoral care of the family, as the guarantee to renew the Church and society.»
 [Reporting by Carmen Elena Villa]

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