In the first formal speech of his visit to Colombia, Pope Francis on Thursday told government authorities that the key to eliminating conflict is to recognize the dignity of all people, especially the poor and marginalized. “I ask you, please, to listen to the poor, to those who suffer. Look them in the eye and let yourselves be continually questioned by their faces racked with pain and by their pleading hands. From them we learn true lessons about life, humanity and dignity,” the Pope said Sept. 7.

He explained that the Church, “faithful to her mission” and “committed to peace, justice and the good of all,” knows that the principles of the Gospel “are a significant dimension of the social fabric of Colombia, and thus can contribute greatly to the growth of the country.” “Particularly, sacrosanct respect for human life, above all for the weakest and most defenseless, is a cornerstone in the formation of a society free from violence.”

Pope Francis met with political and religious authorities, the diplomatic corps, entrepreneurs, and representatives of civil society and culture at the Plaza de Armas of the “Casa de Nari√±o” in Bogota on the first full day of his Sept. 6-11 trip to Colombia. His trip follows apostolic visits by two of his predecessors, Bl. Paul VI and St. John Paul II.

“Like them,” he said, “I am moved by the desire to share with my Colombian brothers and sisters the gift of faith, which put down its roots so strongly in these lands, and the hope which beats in the hearts of everyone.” “Only in this way, by means of faith and hope, can we overcome the numerous difficulties encountered along the way, to build a country that is a motherland and a home to all Colombians.”

He said the work of creating and shaping society must include all people, encouraging authorities to look in particular to those who are excluded and marginalized by society, because “Colombia needs the participation of all so as to face the future with hope.”

Francis noted the significant progress towards peace that had been achieved over the past year with the signing of the peace accord between authorities and the guerilla group FARC. These steps give rise to hope, he said. “Seeking peace is an open-ended endeavor, a task which does not relent, which demands the commitment of everyone.”

“It is an endeavor challenging us not to weaken our efforts to build the unity of the nation. Despite obstacles, differences and varying perspectives on the way to achieve peaceful coexistence, this task summons us to persevere in the struggle to promote a 'culture of encounter.'” A culture of encounter requires us to place the human person at the center of everything — all political, social and economic activity — and in doing so, may we have the determination and strength to resist the temptation to vengeance and partisan interests, he continued.

“The motto of this country is: 'Freedom and Order.' These two words contain a complete lesson. Citizens must be valued according to their freedom and be protected by a stable order. It is not the law of the most powerful, but rather the power of the law, approved by all, that regulates a peaceful coexistence.”

Francis urged them to institute just laws in order to promote peace and overcome the country’s decades-long conflict. Referencing Evangelii Gaudium, he said that we need laws “which are not born from the pragmatic need to order society,” but from the “desire to resolve the structural causes of poverty that lead to exclusion and violence.” “Only in this way can there be healing of the sickness that brings fragility and lack of dignity to society, leaving it always vulnerable to new crises. Let us not forget that inequality is the root of social ills,” he said.

In the speech, Pope Francis also pointed out Colombia’s great biodiversity, considered second in the world, and which he said requires careful respect. The nation is blessed in many ways, he said, including in the beauty of its nature: “traveling through this land one can taste and see how good the Lord has been in bestowing such immense variety of flora and fauna...”

He also noted the vibrancy of the country’s culture and people. Just as St. Peter Claver, the Spanish missionary, first saw Colombia with amazement, we too are amazed at its landscape and its inhabitants, the Pope said. Let us stop to recognize, in particular, all those who have no voice: the weakest, the oppressed and maltreated, as well as the contribution of women, he said. “Ladies and Gentlemen, you have before you a fine and noble mission, which is also a difficult task,” he emphasized.

Concluding, the Pope quoted from the acceptance speech of Colombian author and Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez, who said in spite of the difficulty of the task, “Before oppression, plundering and abandonment, we respond with life.” “Neither floods nor plagues, famines nor cataclysms, nor even the unending wars down the centuries, have been able to subdue the tenacious advantage of life over death. An advantage which is both increasing and accelerating.”

“We do not want any type of violence whatsoever to restrict or destroy one more life. I have wanted to come here to tell you that you are not alone, that there are many of us who accompany you in taking this step; this visit intends to offer you an incentive, a contribution that in some way paves the path to reconciliation and peace,” he said. “You are in my prayers. I pray for you, for Columbia’s present and future.”