Colombia: A Path of Social Apostolate Focused on Peace

Joel Cruz Reyes MCCJ

In 2014, Brother Joel Cruz Reyes assembled a team of animators to promote the mission and seek support from parish communities for foreign missions. During this process, pastoral agents and members of the groups they accompanied began expressing concerns about the increasing violence they encountered in their areas. Their primary worry was what they identified, in various ways, as “juvenicide”: the observation that those most involved in violence and death were young people, particularly those under 30 years old.

Br. Joel embarked on redesigning how pastoral agents were supported, drawing from his experience working in conflict zones in Colombia, where he mediated between guerrillas, paramilitaries, coca growers, indigenous communities, and the military through peace communities. The focus shifted towards providing personalized counseling to pastoral agents, centered around identifying, accompanying, mediating, and transforming conflicts within their pastoral settings. Consequently, the team began emphasizing training and formation in conflict resolution, aiming to equip local pastoral agents better to address the new pastoral challenges posed by violence in their communities.

In 2017, during the Comboni Missionaries’ annual Provincial Assembly, attendees shared the increasing violence observed in the local churches (dioceses) where they conducted their missionary work. This led to the establishment of an internal pastoral structure to work towards peace, starting with lay collaborators in Comboni works, individuals sympathetic to the Comboni missionary charism, and those concerned about violence in their communities.

This decision birthed the national coordinating team of the Comboni Peace Teams and Communities, later known by its initials, ECOPAZ. Their role focused on animating, training, and accompanying lay collaborators of the Comboni Missionaries to develop them into promoters and trainers of peace teams. Regular meetings were held every three months at the Comboni seminary of Xochimilco, inviting representatives from each Comboni community considered sensitive to the social issue.

In 2018, individuals not previously associated with the Comboni charism, works, or methodology began to join the initiative, bringing a more civic and socio-political perspective. This widened the participatory approach beyond Comboni collaborators to involve Catholics concerned about violence in the Church and society. Consequently, the ECOPAZ process evolved into a collaborative structure with dioceses and society, extending beyond the boundaries of the Comboni mission.

To ensure continuity and fidelity to Comboni spirituality, methodology, and vision within this broader collaboration, a civil association named ECOPAX was established. This expanded participation beyond Comboni sympathizers to encompass all Catholics committed to addressing violence.

In late 2018 and throughout 2019, efforts were made to establish peace teams and communities in Comboni communities with lay collaborators already involved in supporting missionary works across various states in Mexico. These initiatives aimed to make the Comboni Lay Missionaries the social face of the Comboni Missionaries in the Mexican Church and society.

Despite efforts to establish peace teams, the tradition of lay participation in Comboni works, primarily focused on missionary events and economic support, overshadowed engagement in social missions. Consequently, only a few lay individuals participated actively in Comboni communities.

However, there was increasing interest from lay individuals unaffiliated with Comboni works who sought guidance and accompaniment for local initiatives to address violence. This prompted ECOPAX to extend support to areas without Comboni Missionaries, establishing initiatives in places like Nezahualcoyotl, Iztapalapa, and Totolapan.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 disrupted physical gatherings and hindered progress in parish and pastoral activities. Consequently, a virtual space called “Café Pastoral” was created to facilitate discussions on social pastoral issues amidst the pandemic, later evolving into the Virtual Accompaniment Center – ECOPAX.

The virtual accompaniment center initially focused on supporting lay individuals interested in promoting peace in various Mexican communities, later extending to guide Ecuadorian laypeople. This international dimension marked the birth of the Virtual Accompaniment Center, with participants from Mexico, Ecuador, and the United States.

Despite physical limitations imposed by the pandemic, virtual discussions continued, culminating in the establishment of the first Cultural Center of Peace in Sahuayo Michoacán in July 2021. Inspired by this initiative, similar centers emerged across Mexico and Ecuador, fostering collaboration with local parishes and organizations to promote peace in communities.

The journey towards peace has begun, with individuals, teams, and communities actively participating. The missionary spirit and Comboni methodology serve as guiding principles for those committed to walking the path toward the peace exemplified by Jesus Christ. While the future remains uncertain, the growing desire for peace among people underscores the significance of this mission ordained by God.

Br. Joel Cruz Reyes MCCJ