“Venezuela has become a country of contradictions. Despite the economic and social crisis, there have been recent openings of casinos and luxury car dealerships”, says Luis Vildoso, head of projects for international foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), in the country.
Following a trip, during which he visited 11 dioceses in the centre and west of Venezuela, he spoke to ACN about the current situation in the country and in the Church, and how it continues to be very much alive, in the midst of difficulties.
How do you describe the situation in Venezuela?
You can tell that it is a country that at one point had a good economic situation. Venezuela is very rich in energy resources such as oil and gas. You can still see fine infrastructure, for example. I would highlight the roads. The country is well connected with a network of motorways which are in good condition. However, at the same time there is a situation of very serious poverty, the macroeconomic figures speak for themselves. A public health or education worker, for instance, makes around USD$6 or USD$12 per month, but the average cost of living for a family of five is around USD$200 per month. Furthermore, industry, in general, has either ground to a halt or is significantly depleted, such as the oil industry, which is operating below minimum production levels.
Does this situation affect the population?
Venezuela has become a country of contradictions. Despite the economic and social crisis, recently we have seen the opening of casinos and luxury car dealerships, such as Ferrari, as well as karting tracks, a modern new Baseball Stadium and even new private clinics. However, all these things are reserved for “the connected”, those who are somehow related to the current regime.
How would you describe the current situation of the Church?
I found a Church that is very much alive, very united and joyful, despite the fact that it faces an uphill struggle. You can see that God is present, sustaining the community; He is their strength. From a social perspective, the Church operates many initiatives in the fields of education and health. Besides material aid, Catholics also receive spiritual sustenance through a number of different activities. I was very moved to see how the laity are committed to the Church. In the midst of the poverty, the people show solidarity with their priests, putting their vehicles, their know-how and their experience at the disposal of their pastors to organise pastoral initiatives. Everyone, rich or poor, contributes according to their means.
In some places there is a shortage of priests. Many foreign priests and religious have had to leave the country because their residence permits were not renewed. Furthermore, some priests and bishops are suffering from fatigue, because they cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel. We need to help the clergy and contribute to its spiritual renovation, but also ensure responses can be made in a timely manner when problems arise.
Is the Church persecuted in any way?
Governmental control over the population in general is very clear, especially through the “alcabalas”, which are checkpoints where there is always a policeman on watch, for example, in petrol stations. Media is also controlled. By controlling the population, to some degree the government also controls the Church. The government has, occasionally, lashed out against the Church. Recently, a few days after celebrating Mass, a priest received a letter from the government, saying: “This was your sermon”! To a certain extent, the Church is besieged.
What options do you see to improve the country’s situation?
The bishops think and believe that change will take place with future generations. Therefore, they have emphasised the need to support young people through creative pastoral initiatives, to try and connect to them. Many young people make a crucial contribution to the Church’s social outreach. Venezuela has a diaspora of about seven million people, mostly young professionals. So special attention is being paid to young people to try and avoid emigration.
How do the young people respond to these overtures?
The bishop of the Diocese of San Carlos Cojedes invited us to a youth gathering, but we had no idea how big it would be. When we arrived, we were met by 500 young people, in dialogue with the bishop, asking him very interesting questions, and they invited us to join them. When I left, I felt renewed in my mission and it was beautiful to be able to give a testimony of married life to such a large group of young people who are trying to discern their vocation – some of whom may be called to consecrated or religious life, and others to marriage – and to show them that it is possible to live out a Christian life in a variety of vocations.
I had a similar experience in the Diocese of Acarigua Araure. We went to another gathering of young people with their bishop, for vocational discernment. We found a Church full of young people. We could only wish that churches in Europe were like this as well! The Church in Venezuela is very Latin American, very lively, very joyful.
What else impacted you during this trip?
Despite emigration, the Venezuelan population continues to grow. I was struck by the levels of overcrowding in areas like Petare, on the outskirts of Caracas. As one walks along the streets there are small alleys that lead to other houses, all full of people. I saw one building that was about 10 or 12 stories high; although these are not so much buildings, but structures, built on top of each other, held up by pillars that only seem to remain standing by miracle. There is no official count, but it is said that about two million people are crowded into this area.
How do you think ACN can continue to help?
The Church urgently needs our support, because the current economic crisis has directly affected the Church’s sustenance. Caring for the clergy continues to be a priority for us, and the same applies to women religious, who do such a commendable job, and all pastoral agents. However, at the same time, we are also very interested in encouraging the formation of the laity, and promoting personal experiences with God, as well as initiatives that can help us to foster these. This way the population can contribute to the transformation of the country.