Papal encounter in Cartagena

Shall I start with the beautiful city of Cartagena, Colombia? Or shall I begin with the extraordinary surprise of meeting the pope? Shall I talk about the girls who suffer so many risks in a world of social inequality?

Actually, each of these elements, as they converged during a papal visit in September, caused me to look anew at my own life. For 34 years, I have been a Sister of the Good Shepherd. I am a Colombian whose life has held an ordinary history of joys, lights and shadows.

What is perhaps distinctive is that each day is motivated by the love of Jesus, particularly as I have been called to special work with girl children and adolescents who have suffered pain, neglect and exploitation due to the social conditions that permeate our communities and nations. I have personally felt the pain and suffering of so many girls.

In my early years, I worked in Cali and then in Medellín, always in districts referred to as the olla — the cooking pot — which connotes a bad neighborhood rife with crime, drugs and the selling of sex. In these places, I have seen violent deaths, newspapers functioning as blankets for street children, and parents with children searching inside garbage cans for food.

Yes, I have seen terrible things, but I can also tell you beautiful testimonies from people, stories of the human spirit's ability to rise up to new life.

And so, about four years ago, I began a new program for girls. We called it Talitha Kum, words from the Aramaic Gospel phrase Jesus used to bid a girl to rise up. It honors the dignity of each person. According to the mission of our congregation, I had made a decision to go to the tourist city of Cartagena de Indias, the colonial name when Cartagena was a port for export of silver to Spain and import of slaves from Africa. It is famous for being a walled city — and, indeed, many invisible walls hide lives of poverty, unemployment, gangs and early pregnancies in squalid neighborhoods. Good Shepherd has a center dedicated to the prevention of sex tourism, which is, sadly, the specific object of many tourists.

At Talitha Kum the children "rise up" every day. We welcome children (ages 9-17) to a program that includes school, human and spiritual accompaniment, and enrichment of family and civic environments. We are always proud when, as recently happened, a 17-year-old girl finished high school and now continues her study.

The girls are active participants in the program, and because it is theirs, they love it. Each day they arrive with enthusiasm. They suggest improvements; they train in child protection principles, and contribute to policy. They are active in awareness of their rights and responsibilities.

And now Pope Francis comes into the story! I learned last March that the pope would visit our program in September. It was such a big surprise that I laughed out loud, just as Sarah did when God spoke to her. Only sometime later was I able to share this secret with children, families and friends.

When I told them we would welcome the pope to our program, the news was met with joy and praises, and facial expressions of astonishment that I will not forget.

One girl said, "when I see him I am going to throw myself at his feet and not let him go!" (She didn't!)

Another girl said "I want to embrace him," and a third said that she would ask for his blessing and ask that he pray for her epileptic mother who suffers seizures. (Though she was unable to make such a personal request, I do believe the pope unites all such intentions in his heart.)

We developed a six-week preparation program called "Waking with Pope Francis." Various pedagogical workshops in the form of games, songs, letters and dances allowed the girls to know about this pope. Rich spiritual preparation was also done, highlighting the preferential place this community holds in the heart of the pope. The mass media helped by showing the usually forgotten faces that suffer behind the beautiful walls of the rich city.

Finally the awaited day came. There was a flood of joy across thousands of simple hearts in expectation of the pope's blessing — here! Among them! In their own place! The girls in particular experienced a change from invisibility to protagonists within their environment. They could learn that God's mercy is limitless and waits to raise up even the poorest from among the poor to their rightful place as beloved of God.

For myself, there are no words to express my feeling at the pope's closeness. I saw him reach my neighborhood and come into the lives of our community. He displayed simplicity, with a quiet smile, a warm handshake and hug, whispering a greeting in my ear. For me, it was an invitation to follow God without fear in the defense of the rights of the most vulnerable.

And now, afterward, what do we make of the Holy Father's visit? Journalists asked this question repeatedly both before and after the visit. Always, the same answer comes to me: "I don't know." Is God's love or compassion any different since the visit?

I have come to understand it is simply about commitment — to be stronger in our work for children and adolescents, to increase our presence in local, national and international networks for this work. Not only for this program but for my religious congregation, locally and internationally.

I hope that we, as a group, can re-motivate and express a greater focus on the work. It is easy to be distracted by nonessential things. We must be strong and unafraid, even to confront unresponsive government structures. To defend the rights of the poor means to proclaim justice in policy and laws for the rights of children and proper employment for their parents. We must be protagonists for rights.

There are so many times that I feel powerless in the face of indifference, especially the indifference of those with the duty to protect children. We have brought cases of alleged sexual abuse where girls are harmed within their families. These cases sit like cold damp rags, uninteresting and immovable; no follow-up action has occurred. Still we insist on continuing to speak up and demand that justice be done.

For me, this is the legacy of the pope's visit to my city. It is a constant call of encouragement to retain joy and hope, to go out to the street and be close with our neighbors, to generate life as bearers of mercy and compassion.

[Blanca Nubia Lopez is a member of the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd. She is the current director of Talitha Kun in Cartagena de Indias and a member of the Cartagena archdiocesan social pastoral team. This article was translated into English by Sr. Yolanda Sánchez, provincial leader.]