ROME– Venezuelan Archbishop Baltazar Enrique Porras Cardozo is one of the pope’s picks from the peripheries who got a red hat this weekend, which the new cardinal says is a sign of the Vatican’s concern for the people amid the country’s ongoing crisis.
“The Holy Father has shown a special interest for Venezuela,” Porras told journalists Nov. 15.
“I think that never as now, here in the Vatican, have there been senior leaders who have had a direct or close relationship with the reality of Venezuela,” he said, adding that “undoubtedly the situation of the country” is what influenced the Pope’s decision to name him cardinal.
This round of consistory red-hatters “is a bit special” in the context of the Jubilee of Mercy, he said, noting that the majority of the cardinals elevated into the College of Cardinals are “’outsiders,’ we come from dioceses or sees which traditionally have never had cardinals.”
On October 9 Pope Francis announced that Porras and 16 other priests and bishops would be named cardinals November 19, the eve of the close of the Jubilee of Mercy. His nomination makes him one of just two cardinal-electors from Venezuela, meaning he is eligible to vote in the next conclave, alongside fellow Venezuelan Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino.
Porras, Archbishop of Merida, spoke to journalists about his nomination in the context of Venezuela’s current social and economic situation November 15, just days before he was elevated as cardinal by Pope Francis.
He recalled receiving a letter from the pope, which didn’t simply offer congratulations, but provided “a program” for how to carry out ministry in his new role.
The letter, he said, cautioned against getting “carried away” by the excitement and compliments for his appointment. To be a cardinal, it read, “is not for a worldly joy, but to know that it’s a responsibility that has to do mainly with the poor.”
“The loss of institutions in Venezuela is very serious. Everything works discretionally in power,” he said, noting that the Church in Venezuela “has been a very critical voice in denouncing the problems that exist in the country.”
Venezuela is currently on the point of a humanitarian emergency in which fundamental necessities are inaccessible and many, including children, die due to the lack of basic foods and medicines.
In the aftermath of Chavez’s stormy reign and the takeover of his successor, Nicolas Maduro in 2013, Venezuela has been marred by violence and social and economic upheaval. Poor economic policies, including strict price controls, coupled with high inflation rates, have resulted in a severe lack of basic necessities such as toilet paper, milk, flour, diapers and medicines.
Venezuela’s socialist government is widely blamed for the crisis. Since 2003, price controls on some 160 products, including cooking oil, soap and flour, have meant that while they are affordable, they fly off store shelves only to be resold on the black market at much higher rates.
The Venezuelan government is known to be among the most corrupt in Latin America, and violent crime in the country has spiked since Maduro took office after former president Chavez died from cancer in 2013. The regime is known to have committed gross abuses, including violence, against those who don’t share their political ideologies.
When it comes to the stance of the Church in the crisis, Porras noted that since the bishops frequently speak out against the Maduro regime, they are labeled as siding with the opposition. However, he stressed that “The Church in Venezuela is not with the opposition, it’s with the people.”
“The hierarchy is with the people,” he said, noting that according to documentation from 1531 when Venezuela first received a bishop until now, the Church has always pointed out the problems that need to be solved.
“All governments, from Romulo Betancourt to now have seen us as the opposition,” he said, insisting that the Church’s behavior, particularly in the past 50 years, “has been in continuity” with her attitude in the past.
“We are on the side of the people and not on the side of any political bias,” he said, explaining that in their meetings with people from both government and opposition parties, “we usually say things quite clearly. And there are those who receive it and those who don’t.”
Porras also spoke about Pope Francis and his Latin American roots, which he says are at the heart of the pope’s closeness to the people.
In both Europe and North America, Francis’s style “is sometimes seen as something like a good pastor who doesn’t have much depth in thought, that he is simply a good pastor.”
This attitude “is a mistake,” Porras said, saying that if there’s one virtue the Church in Latin America has “it is closeness, simplicity and presence in the midst of problems.”
The ‘theology of the people’ was popular in Argentina in the 1950s as an alternative to radical liberation theology. While radical liberation theologians looked to Marxist interpretations of the Gospel, theology of the people was founded on common peoples’ culture and devotion, including their spirituality and sense of justice.
A true “pastoral theology,” Porras said, can be understood by looking to the concept of an internist doctor in medicine, who is the one that has “a fairly general vision” of things, and as such is able to take the richness of other areas of theology “and always relate them to reality, to daily life.”
“This is one of the great contributions” Latin American theology has, Porras said, explaining that the true value of it “is clearly expressed in the thought and actions of Pope Francis.”
He spoke about the pope’s frequent call for pastors to take on the “smell of the sheep,” which is something “we have to be permanently,” particularly given the country’s current situation.
“Unfortunately, in Latin America and Venezuela also, those who arrive at the government remain isolated in a kind of capsule and have very little relation with the people, with real problems,” he said, noting that as bishops, staying close to their flock is a key way “to be able to see what reality” is like.
Many say Venezuela is a rich country, “but what Venezuela has had throughout the 21st century is a rich government, but not a rich population,” the archbishop said, explaining that currently “everything is the opposite.”
When asked about the recent election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States, Porras said Trump’s pre-election rhetoric on immigration has “a short circuit,” especially given the fact that there are many Latinos who live in the U.S.
“Simplistic readings of this should not be made,” he said, noting that in the context of a changing world, when the needs of the people are at least in some way “recognized by political diligence,” the politicians “must also look for solutions to these problems.”