Following the private meeting between Pope Francis and the leaders of the Venezuelan bishops’ conference in Rome, ACN was able to interview one of its representatives, Bishop Moronta.
“It was a visit marked by great urgency, in view of the situation of crisis in the country”
“It is impossible to build peace by means of ‘quietism’, by sitting by with arms folded. Our job is to work for reconciliation”
To be able to speak to the Pope face to face, to be able to look in into his eyes and describe to him the daily reality of the Venezuelan crisis – this was the principal reason for the journey to Rome by representatives of the Venezuelan bishops’ conference, who were granted a private audience with Pope Francis on 8 June this year. “It was decided with very little advance warning, given the urgent nature of the visit”, said Bishop Mario Moronta of San Cristóbal diocese, who was a member of the delegation from the national bishops’ conference. “As we were about to buy the plane tickets for Italy we were still not sure whether the Pope would be able to meet us”, he explained. “On both sides we had to change our schedules, but the Pope at all times displayed the greatest availability and interest”, he added in an interview given to representatives of the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) during a visit to its headquarters in Königstein, Germany. “Initially we were given an interview at 10.30 a.m., but later they extended this in order to give us more time and be able to speak calmly. In the end we spent 50 minutes together, whereas the normal length of an audiences is 20 minutes or so. The Holy Father wanted to hear from us and for us to hear from him.”
And it is true that, in what until just a few years ago was a dream country, people today are living in a desperate situation, marked by hunger, corruption, looting, arbitrary detention and vandalism, which have made of the country a veritable time bomb. The endless protests against the regime of Bolivarian socialism under Nicolas Maduro are the stuff of daily life. According to the Venezuelan social watchdog organisation, the Observatorio Venezolano de Conflictividad Social (OVCS), from 1 April to 19 June 2017 there were no fewer than 2,675 demonstrations – an average of 33 protests each day. Tens of people have died in these protests, but official censorship and the lack of any transparency make it impossible to discover a reliable official number for these deaths.
The Venezuelan bishops also showed the Pope the reports on infant malnutrition drawn up by Caritas, and at the same time a detailed dossier on the violent repression, with photos and the name of each one of the victims. “Francis read it all with close attention and was evidently very much affected, very touched by it.” He reiterated his support for the bishops and asked them to continue to stay close to the people, “to be in the midst of them, creating a transparent dialogue and building bridges”. For their part the bishops assured him that both the Venezuelan Church and the great majority of the people were “in full communion with the Pope and following everything he asks”. “Your voice is our voice”, the bishops told the Pope, to which Pope Francis replied: “No, in your voice is the voice of the Pope.”
Bishop Moronta assured ACN that they had heard “at first hand how the Pope is very closely following the current Venezuelan situation and is well informed about everything… However Venezuela is not the only worry for the Holy Father; there is also Syria, there is Sudan… and he cannot make pronouncements about every single detail of our political situation.”
How to build peace?
Bishop Moronta called on people to avoid “pietism” which, he said, could degenerate into “quietism”, or waiting around with arms folded for the situation to resolve itself of its own accord. “It is no use simply praying the Rosary and at the same time nurturing ill will towards our neighbour because he is a chavista (a follower of the late Hugo Chavez’ brand of revolutionary socialism) or a member of the opposition. We all have to help each other, to come together and be reconciled with one another, so that peace may grow from the grassroots upwards – since it will never come from the top, where the politicians are, downwards. Reconciliation is our job, supporting each other, listening to what God is asking of us.”
And turning to the business of daily life in Venezuela, Bishop Moronta described all the initiatives taken by many people in the diocese to help the most needy – the priest who plants a vegetable garden in order to teach the community how to be more self-reliant in the face of the food shortages; the community which hires a centre in order to open a restaurant and which then uses the money raised to provide food for the poorest and most needy people in the area. He also described how people are living through this time of crisis in his own diocese of San Cristóbal, which lies on the frontier with Colombia and, specifically, with the town of Cucutá. “Every day thousands of people cross the border to buy food and other necessities. They arrive hungry and exhausted, and the Church in Colombia is helping greatly in this sense, providing food and drink.” The bishops of both dioceses have met together frequently to work out the most serious problems, and above all that of medical care. Bishop Moronta is full of gratitude in speaking about his sister diocese in Colombia.
It is a strategic and also a problematic locality, given that the border has been closed at different times since August 2015 and continues to be subject to many restrictions today. It is a difficult situation that an ACN delegation which visited Cucutá in April 2016 was able to see for itself. The Venezuelan priests, who met with the delegation at that time in order to talk to them about the tragic situation of thousands of uprooted people, were obliged to cross the frontier on foot because it was still closed then.
Bishop Moronta took advantage of his journey to Rome to make a detour and visit the international headquarters of ACN in Königstein, Germany, where he was able to meet with the Latin America project section that deals with projects for Venezuela and inform them in detail of the principal concerns in his diocese. He also thanked them for the help already given for evangelisation, and for the training of the priests, religious and laity of the local Church.