Pope Francis has sent a handwritten letter to a Colombian soldier who lost his sight during the country's civil war.
The Pope met Edwin Restrepo, a retired marine, during his visit to Colombia in September. Now it has emerged that on November 9, Restrepo received the letter, in which the Pope thanked him for his sacrifice during Colombia's armed conflict, and told the veteran he was still holding on to his 'touching' gift.
When Francis visited a Colombian airbase in September, he greeted soldiers and police officers who had been maimed during the war. As the Pope walked by Restrepo and shook his hand, the marine bent his head forward, asked for the Pope's blessing and asked him to take his military cap. Their conversation lasted only a minute.
Restrepo recalled: 'He gave me a rosary. So I told him I wanted to give him something that represents our military forces, and there was nothing better I could think of than my cap.'
Pope Francis said in his letter that he held on to the cap during his trip to Colombia because it reminded him of the 'sacrifice' and 'patriotism' of Colombian soldiers who have fought in the country's war with Marxist guerrillas that has only recently concluded.
The Pope added that he now keeps the hat above an altar in his small office in Rome, and included a picture of the hat and the altar.
'I often pray there,' the Pope wrote in the letter. 'And every time I do, I pray for you, and for your fallen and injured colleagues.'
At the age of 19, Restrepo lost his sight along with his left leg and part of his right hand in 2004, when he stepped on a land mine during a patrol in rural Colombia while completing compulsory military service.
The former marine said he was taken aback by the pontiff's gesture, especially because he never told the Pope his name – Pope Francis had reportedly tracked down Restrepo with the help of Colombian church officials.
Restrepo told the Catholic News Service: 'I never expected this. I think it is one of the most beautiful gestures that I've experienced.'
Restrepo added that he will frame the letter and place it in his small studio along with the rosary that the Pope gave him. Restrepo now reads in Braille and is completing a law degree.
'I want to keep helping the members of our military,' he said. 'There are many who haven't received proper pensions, and I want to litigate on their behalf.'