While the Pope has often made surprising choices of cardinals, the promotion of the archbishop of Bogotá, Colombia, was expected. In the person of this 61-year-old prelate, Pope Francis is honoring a traditional cardinal’s seat. He is also lending his support to the peace process in which this country has been engaged for over a decade, with the support of the local episcopate and the Holy See.
Luis José Rueda Aparicio, born in 1962 and ordained a priest in 1989 for the Diocese of Socorro y San Gil, studied moral theology at the Alphonsian Academy in Rome. After several parish and educational posts, including rector of a technical institute for rural development, Benedict XVI appointed him bishop of Montelibano in 2012. Francis promoted him to archbishop of Popayán in 2018 and then of Bogotá in 2020. He has also been the president of the Colombian Bishops’ Conference since 2021.
Colombia is the fifth largest country in Latin America geographically, and the third largest by population. The Diocese of Bogotá, the primatial see of Colombia, has a population of almost five million, a tenth of the country’s total population. Archbishop Rueda assumed this office in the difficult context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The faithful are served by some 1,000 priests (including 400 diocesan priests and 600 religious).
Relatively at ease with the media, he embodies an approach of openness with civil society. Two past Colombian cardinals were called to the Vatican under the pontificate of John Paul II: Cardinals Alfonso López Trujillo (1935-2008) and Dario Castrillon Hoyos (1929-2018).
“Being a cardinal means being a fulcrum for evangelization, accompanying Peter’s successor, who at the moment is the Latin American pope, Pope Francis,” explained the archbishop of Bogotá in an interview with Canal 1 television channel. He explained that he will bring the experience of the Church in Colombia to the Sacred College in order to encourage the “missionary communion” of the whole Church.
Working for peace by supporting government negotiations
The Colombian bishops are particularly committed to the delicate peace processes between the government and the guerrilla movements that have fragmented the country for over half a century. Since 2016, the conclusion of an agreement with FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) has not prevented the persistence of other guerrillas and the emergence of dissidents of FARC itself.
The 11th cardinal in the history of Colombia says that his contacts with the political world are part of a search for reconciliation, seeking “negotiated ways out” of the conflicts that continue to mark this country.
Despite the Church’s opposition to certain societal reforms of the left-wing government led by President Gustavo Petro, the bishops are supporting him in peace negotiations with the country’s last major guerrilla group, the ELN (National Liberation Army). “The paths to reconciliation are slow, they advance very slowly, they are tortuous: however, in the situation the country is going through, we, the bishops, have opted to permanently accompany the dialogues with the ELN,” he said in 2023 in an interview with the daily El Tiempo.
In unity with Catholic faithful and unbelievers alike
On September 25, 2023, Archbishop Rueda Aparicio presided over the funeral of artist Fernando Botero at Bogotá Cathedral. Latin America’s most famous sculptor, a devout Catholic, was committed to supporting the peace process with the FARC guerrillas that concluded in 2016. At the time, he created a sculpture titled “Dove of Peace” using his voluptuous forms traditionally associated with femininity. In accordance with his wishes, this sculpture was displayed next to his coffin at his funeral.
“The foundation of peace is the Gospel,” and the Church seeks to bear witness to this “in dialogue with all the presidents and all the security forces throughout Colombian history,” said Archbishop Rueda Aparicio on Colombian television. “It is necessary to persevere for peace,” said the cardinal. He said he hopes to play a positive role “with believers and non-believers alike. We must learn to respect the life of those who do not think as we do, and even dignify the life of our enemy.”
A rapidly changing society
Secularization is also a major challenge for this country. It has undergone radical changes in the area of bioethics, with the legalization of euthanasia in 2015, same-sex marriage in 2016, and abortion and assisted suicide in 2022. The Church has opposed these reforms, but continues to maintain regular institutional dialogue with the Colombian state. “There will be many aspects to correct, but it’s important that we look to Colombia’s present and future, continuing to work for life, peace, and integral human development,” declared Archbishop Rueda Aparicio after the electoral victory of leftist candidate Gustavo Petro in 2022.
In 2023, the Archbishop of Bogotá also pledged the Catholic Church’s commitment to fight against sexual abuse of minors, repeating that it constitutes “a crime and a sin.” “We must renew our hearts as members of the Church and as pastors, to place ourselves at the service of children, adolescents and vulnerable people in a clearer and more responsible way,” he explained. Since 2010, the Colombian justice system has registered 42 complaints against Catholic priests.