ROME – As Venezuela continues to struggle with a deep political crisis, Pope Francis met the country’s bishops Tuesday for a wide-ranging conversation that also touched on immigration, vocations and the environment, although details of the private exchange were not released.
“We have spoken with the Holy Father on the important topic of immigration,” said Archbishop Jose Luis Azuaje Ayala of Maracaibo, head of the Venezuelan episcopal conference, during a press event at the Opus Dei-run Holy Cross University in Rome.
“As you all know, we are in a great economic, social and political crisis,” he added.
Venezuela has been experiencing a series of calamities – inflation, famine, floods and disease – often pivoting on the leadership of its president Nicolas Maduro, successor to Hugo Chavez, who critics accuse of deepening an economic crisis in the country and applying anti-democratic policies.
Forty-six Venezuelan bishops met the pope for their “ad limina” visit to the Vatican, a trip made by prelates around the world every five years to meet the pope and get to know the various Vatican departments.
While no mention was made at the press conference about Francis’s thoughts on the Venezuelan political situation, the pontiff has made clear his closeness to its impoverished people.
“The pope knows the situation very well,” Azuaje said. “I would say that the words he told us will remain in our hearts as bishops: ‘Maintain your closeness with the people.’ He insisted that we do this.”
The Argentinian pope recently appointed Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra from Venezuela to the powerful position of sostituto, or “substitute”, at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, making him effectively the pope’s Chief of Staff. This move, along with the fact that the current Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, also served as papal envoy to Venezuela from 2009 to 2013, reflects the Vatican’s keen interest in the troubled nation.
According to international monitors, almost 90 percent of the Venezuelan population lives well beneath the poverty line, with serious consequences for health and basic human rights. Hyperinflation, which in July reached a rate of 83,000 percent, has further crippled the country, with many people not being able to afford basic amenities.
The rocketing inflation, the archbishop said, “deteriorates any margin for profit” for working people and is in many ways tied to speculation. “It’s impossible to control,” Azuaje said.
The average Venezuelan lost 24 pounds due to lack of proper nutrition and revenue, with locals dubbing it “the Maduro diet,” according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Some women even claim to have resorted to sex work in order to put food on the table.
Maduro has blocked humanitarian aid into the country because he believes it to be a political ploy from foreign nations. The result is a resurgence of diphtheria with cases of measles and malaria as well.
The result has been a massive exodus of Venezuelans to neighboring countries, which has strained welcome for those newcomers. As roughly four million people have left Venezuela due to the country’s economic depression, several neighboring countries have begun to apply stronger restrictions.
Francis “spoke to us about that parresia (“boldness”), that strength that we as bishops must have, and he insisted a lot on our closeness to the Venezuelan people, to all the Venezuelan people, but especially with those who suffer most due to all these calamities,” Azuaje said.
The archbishop explained that the clergy in the country is enduring the same challenges as their flock, adding that a priority for the local Church is to “safeguard the freedom of the Venezuelan people” and “the defense of human rights.”
Vocations were also among the topics discussed. The archbishop said that “a good selection must be made to see the heart of young people wishing to become priests.” He also said that it’s important to inspire local priests in the communities to go out and spread solidarity and peace.
Concerning the environment, Azuaje expressed concern for extensive mining along the Orinoco Amazonian river, adding that the focus should be on avoiding “permanent damage.”
“The pope is concerned by the deterioration of the beautiful nature of Venezuela,” the archbishop said, but also for the many indigenous people who are put at risk by the ongoing destruction of their ancestral home. He said that an upcoming 2019 summit of bishops from the pan-Amazonian region in Rome hopes to tackle these issues and promote projects that safeguard the environment.
Azuaje told journalists that the Vatican’s Secretariat of State hopes to create safe channels to bring humanitarian aid and solidarity to the Venezuelan people, who having worked hard to construct a democratic society now often find themselves lacking basic political and social freedoms.