By María Isabel Moreno Muñoz, EL TIEMPO, March 30, 2021
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Interview with Monsignor Rubén Darío Jaramillo Montoya about his work in Buenaventura.
St. Francis of Assisi, the universal patron of ecology, lacked only a backpack to be called “the priest with a backpack”, like they call the Bishop of Buenaventura. They say that Monsignor Jaramillo knows every one of the rivers in the municipality, because for him, water is vitality. Even though in this city, inhabited by approximately 450,000 people, there is potable water hardly even every other day.
Born in Santa Rosa de Cabal, Risaralda Province, Rubén Darío Jaramillo is the third of four brothers. He studied philosophy and theology in the María Inmaculada Major Seminary in Pereira, and in 1992 he was ordained a priest. He has held numerous pastoral positions since then, until Pope Francis named him Bishop of Buenaventura in 2017.
He grew up in a conservative family. His mother was the President of the Legion of Mary, a church group that has the Virgin Mary as its model. She educated him in the Neocatechumenal Way, a church movement with strong spirituality in the Word, and with a number of practices that are not habitual in the entirety of the Catholic Church. Rubén Darío Jaramillo is the only priest in his family and, since both his parents have died, he is the family’s center of attention.
The Diocese of Buenaventura has been the location of complaints about priests that have dared to inquire into the war that the region is going through. Fifty years ago Monsignor Gerardo Valencia Cano was known at the time as the “red bishop”, because he was inclined to defend the poor and the Afro-Colombian community in Buenaventura and the Colombian Pacific. Or Monsignor Héctor Epalza Quintero, the predecessor of the current Bishop, who was a well-known leader of the Civic Strike Committee in Buenaventura in 2017.
Last year Monsignor Rubén Darío Jaramillo received his first death threat. A person came up to a priest to tell him that some men were offering a large sum of money for anyone that would kill the Bishop of Buenaventura. Besides that, there were posts on social networks that talked about placing a bomb to kill the Bishop.
After these events, the bishops of Pacific and Southwestern Colombia traveled to Buenaventura and publicly expressed their concern about “the poverty, the pain, the killing, and the desperation generated by the confluence of situations that (…) we denounce the ever-increasing drug trafficking, the increase in armed groups, in corruption, ,extortion, and the ineffectiveness of broad public and private sectors.”
Buenaventura is an “extremely rich” territory, as he describes it. But it’s a place, he says, where the drug traffic produces money that goes to other cities, and is used there to develop economic activities that appear to be illegal.
“ . . . What the bandits want is to kill people to silence them. So that nobody says anything, so that nobody files a complaint, because it’s in silence that they do their activities, in darkness.”
Next to your bed, you have a picture of St. Francis of Assisi. Why do you admire that personage so much?
(He laughs.) I have a picture of St. Francis of Assisi because, for me, he is a model of a man who has given himself to the poor, and the poor are the ones who will save us, will lead us to heaven. Seeing the poor, sharing with them, is the greatest work that we can do in this world. Money, power, and their friends all give aid to the rich, but nobody helps the poor because nobody is interested in them.
Who was the person that influenced you the most to embark on the journey of being a priest?
I believe it was my mom. Her prayers, her devotion to the Eucharist, her unquenchable faith. She was a model of Christian faith and for life in general.
But your mother used to say that you were going to be the first one of the brothers to get married. What happened?
(He laughs.) What happens is that God chooses the worst people in the world, and makes them into people that can do great things. Ever since I was a child, I was thinking of doing other things, and when I got out of high school, I thought of the possibility of being a priest. I had been an acolyte in my parish, I had helped several priests, I had seen examples of priests, and here’s exactly what I said when I saw a priest, I used to say, “I want to be a priest so as not to be like them,” and that is what got me to be a priest.
Your sister says that “the higher you get the more you suffer”, referring to the Catholic hierarchy. Is that true?
She’s absolutely right, because it’s more responsibility. And as a Bishop, you have to be responsible for your priests, for your religious, the lay people, and the social side. When I was a priest, I had to get along with the community of a parish; now I have a lot of parishes, many priests. That’s not easy, because you stop being just one, in order to belong to the others.
Does being higher mean having more authority?
That depends on how you use your authority. There are people that use authority to have power over other people and dominate them, order them around, or yell at them. I don’t care for that part. I like to have authority to be able to serve more; to influence in helping others, and to have friends in power so that they will help the neediest people.
They told me that at the beginning it didn’t go very well for you in Buenaventura. What happened?
Nobody gets along well at first, because they don’t know you. They told me that I was kind of a right-leaning Bishop and always quiet, waiting for the right moment. When you first arrive, a lot of people want you to get started doing things and no, first we have to get to a place, respect it, get to know it, visit, listen to the people, to be able to understand the culture. At first I took my time, but it was simply because of respect for a different culture that I was not familiar with.
“ . . . they catch the ringleaders, well-known criminals, but behind them there are thousands just waiting to take up arms and keep on with the criminal activity.”
But your mother educated you in the Neocatechumenal Way, which is for very conservative priests, favoring the institutions, the government, the laws. Then why do you think you became a person making complaints now?
Becausethehumanbeingisabeingthat is complete.TheNeocatechumenalWayisawayoffaith, toobtain a more powerful faith, so that everything we do makes us filled with God, without trying to be a protagonist, to be honest. I value everything that I have received from the Way; it’s where I was taught to be a priest, as a person. And that priest now sees a great need in a community that’s suffering, and that’s why I have to speak out.
What has been the hardest about your work in Buenaventura?
The hardest is seeing the government’s impotence in controlling the region. Seeing that the government is not here, the authorities are not here, governing is not here. One would like to see the Mayor taking charge, making decisions, and you see them so tied-up, so kidnapped by the criminal gangs. It’s as if they want to do things, but they can’t because those other dark forces won’t let them. That pains me a great deal, seeing how the government can’t be a government.
You have said in the media that the accompaniment that the Armed Forces do in Buenaventura is not sufficient, that things calm down a little and then the violence surges again. That structural solutions are needed . . .
The police have arrived and they have doubled the number of police and soldiers. There are a lot of boots on the ground here in the district. But the killing continues and the robbery continues. The general structure of the problem is that it’s easy money; the drug traffic continues to thrive. Because they catch some ringleaders, well-known criminals, but behind them there are thousands, just waiting to take up arms and join in the criminal activity. The drug trafficking is all over the country. If the money produced by the drug traffic could stay in Buenaventura we would be richer than the Germans.
What is your mission in Buenaventura?
I would like to be a bridge to unite many extremes. The national government is one ideological line, the district government is another, and their dialog does not flow through. I would like to be a bridge between the rich and the poor. The business owners in the ports are multimillionaires, but there are five hundred thousand people who live here in poverty. I would like to be a bridge between the criminal gangs and legality. If they could lay down their weapons, be reconciled, ask for pardon, and the city could be back to normal.
Why is it that “remaining silent is also dying?”
Because the gangsters want to kill the people to silence them. So nobody says anything; nobody makes a complaint because they act in silence, in darkness and one of the problems that we have is that the authorities could act, but nobody wants to make a complaint. They capture a gangster and nobody testifies against him because of fear. So anybody that complains is condemned to death; they will kill him. That’s why making a complaint is practically like a tombstone, it’s your death.