ROME – Pope Francis had intended to send his Secretary of State to Venezuela this weekend, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he settled with sending a long video-message instead, asking for the “beloved nation” to come together “with seriousness and sincerity” in favor of democracy, peace and prosperity.
Francis also acknowledges that, “like my brother bishops” he knows the suffering of the Venezuelan people well, “and I’m aware that your prolonged hardships and anguish have been aggravated by the terrible COVID-19 pandemic that affects us all.”
“Let us seek the path of national unity, and that for the good of Venezuela,” Francis said in a message released by the Vatican on Thursday, ahead of the beatification of Venezuelan doctor José Gregorio Hernández. “An operative unity in which everyone, with seriousness and sincerity, from respect and reciprocal recognition, putting the common good before any other interest, work for unity, peace and prosperity, so that, in this way, citizens may live with normality, productivity, democratic stability, security, justice and hope.”
The video by the pontiff to Venezuela was released ahead of Friday’s official recognition of the late medical doctor as a “blessed,” the step previous to sainthood for the Catholic Church. Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin was scheduled to celebrate the beatification Mass, but on Wednesday the Holy See’s press office announced that, due to the coronavirus pandemic, he’d had to cancel the trip.
Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, was the papal representative in Venezuela from 2009 until 2013, when the Argentine pontiff handpicked him as his top diplomat.
The relationship between the Catholic hierarchy and the government of Nicolas Maduro, the socialist leader who replaced Hugo Chavez after his death in 2013, has long been strained, with the bishops accusing the president of being dictatorial, abusing power, and wrongfully incarcerating members of Venezuela’s political opposition.
At least openly, the Vatican has mostly stayed on the sidelines, urging diplomacy and dialogue. However, Francis has met with the leadership of the local bishops’ conference on several opportunities, both in Rome and during some of his trips to South America, including during 2019’s World Youth Day in Panama, and the prelates have all publicly stated that the pope has their back.
On the way back from United Arab Emirates later in 2019, the pope was asked if he or the Holy See would help mediate between the Venezuelan government and the opposition, and he said it was possible, if both sides asked for it.
At the time, Francis also confirmed that Maduro had written a letter to him asking for help in the dialogue process but added that he had not yet read it.
Two days later, on Feb. 7, 2019, he reportedly sent a letter to Maduro to say that while he’s in favor of a negotiated settlement to the country’s political crisis, previous negotiations were halted because agreements were not respected.
In a leaked section of the letter published in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Francis said both sides must prioritize the common good over partisan aims.
The beatification of Hernández, known as the “doctor of the poor,” was seen by many as an opportunity to reignite the dialogue efforts, and the reason why Parolin had been tapped for the celebration and not the head of the Vatican’s sainthood office, who’s traditionally in charge of these events.
In Thursday’s video message, Francis said he was also thinking about “all those who have left the country in search of better living conditions, and also those who are deprived of their freedom and those who lack the most basic necessities.”
“You are all compatriots of the Blessed, all of you. And you all have the same rights. I accompany you all with love. And just as I know well the sufferings, I also know the faith and the great hopes of the Venezuelan people,” he added.
According to the United Nations migrants and refugees’ office, an estimated 5.4 million people have fled Venezuela since 2013, in what has long been considered the worst migration crisis in the world not resulting from war. The country has long been spiraling out of control, with the world’s highest inflation rate, medical shortages, and constant energy cuts due to lack of infrastructure.
According to Francis, the beatification of Hernández is a special blessing of God for Venezuela, and invitation “to conversion towards a greater solidarity with one another, to produce among all the response of the common good so needed for the country to revive, to be reborn after the pandemic, with a spirit of reconciliation.”
“It’s a grace to ask for: the spirit of reconciliation; because there are always problems in families, in cities, in society, there are people who look at each other sideways, who look at each other badly, and reconciliation is always needed, the outstretched hand! And an outstretched hand is a good social investment.”
“I sincerely believe that this moment of national unity, around the figure of the people’s doctor, represents a singular hour for Venezuela, and demands that you go further, that you take concrete steps in favor of unity, without letting yourselves be overcome by discouragement,” Francis said.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma