In Venezuela, crisis has brought many closer to the Church
THE PEOPLE OF VENEZUELA HAVE BEEN LIVING THROUGH A SEVERE ECONOMIC CRISIS for more than 15 years. Nearly seven million Venezuelans have emigrated; particularly young people are forced to leave the country. This is a loss for the future. Venezuela suffers from uncontrolled hyperinflation, which affects especially the poorest, who see their low incomes increasingly lose value; meanwhile, hunger is on the rise, and opportunities decrease. Bishop Raul Biord of La Guaira, a diocese in the north-central part of the country, spoke with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
What can the church of Venezuela do to help Venezuelans suffering from hunger, the absence of prospects, and a lack of resources?
Priests, religious, catechists, pastoral workers and volunteers at the parish level are striving to be close to people, especially the poorest. The Church is committed to helping those most in need through different food programs for destitute children and the elderly. Nursing children and pregnant mothers suffer from very high levels of malnutrition. Infant weight, height and muscle arm circumference are measured, and those who are found to be malnourished are given multi-vitamins and food. There are also many soup kitchens in parishes, dispensaries and parish health centers, where thousands of volunteers are helping the most vulnerable every day.
One of the most important tasks, in parishes and religious communities, is to keep hope alive, as the Virgin Mary did at the foot of the cross. We know that the good Lord will not abandon us in our hour of need, that He is here, and that He will not leave us alone; on the contrary, He gives us the strength to fight on. By sharing God’s Word and serving the poorest, we are building hope and finding the strength that can encourage us to move forward faithfully and creatively.
Are you free to engage in social outreach or do you face obstacles from the government?
The Church is involved in many social programs and has sufficient freedom of action. There are obstacles on our path as everywhere—legal and administrative, difficulty in buying and delivering food and medicine–but when there is a desire to work together and goodwill on both sides, ways are always found.
We are here to serve the people, especially the poorest. Our role and commitment are to act as a presence that can bring light to the situation, inspired by the Gospel. The best contribution we can make to the country is a genuine discernment based on the principles of the social doctrine of the Church. Sometimes, such a voice can upset members of the government or of the opposition, or different economic and social groups, but the prophecy cannot remain silent. The proclamation of the Kingdom of God often goes against the injustices that people commit and the harm they inflict upon the poorest.
How is the Church handling this crisis at a spiritual level?
In the Church, we are moved by the love of Christ and the ardor to proclaim the Kingdom of God. From God and in God we draw spiritual strength to act as Christians in the social and economic reality in which we live.
Our Christian communities experience the situation through their faith in God, finding the strength and resilience needed to move forward in the face of many problems. Many parishes have a pastoral plan that integrates proclamation, celebration, service, communion and mission. At the parish level, local branches of Caritas bring together believers and non-believers through their many social outreach initiatives. In truth, it is imperative to acknowledge that many of those who had left the faith were brought back to the community walking the “path of charity.” In serving, they rediscovered God in the Good Samaritan, who invites us to follow him on this journey.
Are there also priestly vocations?
Amid so much suffering, new priestly vocations have flourished, like a gift from God. Many young people are responding positively to God’s call to be fishers of men and sowers of hope. In the seminary of my diocese this year there are 56 seminarians from various dioceses.
How did the health crisis affect the Church in Venezuela?
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the country was already facing a serious health crisis due to medicine shortages, the exodus of doctors and nurses seeking better living conditions abroad, deteriorating hospital care, and the lack of a functional public health system. COVID-19 aggravated the situation. At present, we are in a third wave and the number of cases and deaths is increasing sharply; among them 43 priests, including Bishop Oswaldo Azuaje of Trujillo and Cardinal Jorge Urosa. In Church-run outpatient clinics and hospitals, we are serving those most in need and those infected by the virus. We need support to get new equipment and obtain the medicines our patients need.
Are you able to keep in touch with Venezuelan refugees? Do they lose their bond with the Church once they arrive in a foreign country?
The number of Venezuelans who left is approaching seven million. It is the largest migration in the country’s modern history and this in less than a decade. The life of every migrant is always difficult and painful. People do not leave their country because they want to; they do so to flee hunger, violence, war, the lack of decent living conditions, the loss of a future. However, there are already more or less organized communities of Venezuelans in various host countries, providing new arrivals with guidance and help.
Venezuelans are a deeply religious people; they believe in God, have a great devotion to the Virgin Mary under her different titles, and feel the closeness of the Blessed José Gregorio Hernández, doctor of the poor. One of the few things that fit easily in the suitcase of Venezuelan migrants is their faith in God. When they arrive in a new land, they look for the nearest Catholic church. In various countries, the local Church has welcomed them with affection, providing them with help via Caritas’s social outreach for migrants. Some bishops have told us that many of their parishes have been pastorally renewed thanks to the contribution and participation of Venezuelan migrants. We rejoice at this and ask every diocese to cherish the newcomers and integrate them into their communities. Just as in the first Christian community (cf. chapter 8, Acts of the Apostles), the diaspora of disciples enabled the Church to grow as the migrants proclaim the Gospel.
For us it is important to find a solution to the country’s problems, to stop the mass migration that is further impoverishing us, since most migrants are young. Under the right conditions, not only Venezuelans but all migrants would return to their place of origin; indeed, few would disagree that there is no better country than one’s own.
Finally, what do you expect from the universal Church? What are your most important needs?
We hope that the sister Churches in other countries will not abandon us, that, through prayers and assistance, they will remember those who suffer the most, and help the poor meet their material needs—food, health, education, job training, etc.—and as well as their spiritual needs. Thus, priests and nuns will be able to stay among the people, churches and social centers—places of hope for the poor where we share bread—and will get at least the minimum support they need and not shut down. I am grateful to ACN for its cooperation, which has allowed us to discover that, through concrete gestures, we are truly one Catholic Church, universal and fraternal.