ROME – Venezuela’s bishops said after a Thursday meeting with Pope Francis that the pontiff told them they have his “full trust,” seemingly a direct response to attempts by the government of Socialist President Nicolas Maduro to set the bishops, who have been sharply critical of the country’s economic and political crisis, in opposition to the pope.
“He told us that that he’s very close to us and very well informed about the situation of Venezuela, and very close to the suffering of the people,” said Archbishop Diego Padrón, president of the Venezuelan Bishops’ Conference, talking to reporters hours after the group met Francis.
“And he also told us that we have his full trust, and we have a great communion with him and his magisterium, so there’s no distance between him and the conference,” he added. Though it might seem obvious to the sporadic observer, this was a direct response to those who, including Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, want to put the two sides in opposition to one another.
The bishops’ session with Francis lasted over 30 minutes and was put together at the request of the prelates.
Attempts to suggest a split between the country’s bishops and the pope have been widespread. Even on Thursday, after the conference sent out a tweet about the meeting with Francis, many took to social media to accuse the Argentine pope of not doing anything or of actually supporting the socialist government of Maduro.
“I believe this is a propaganda move from the government itself, that has said the pope is on their side, and if he’s on their side, then he’s against the opposition, and far from the people,” Padrón said.
The bishops, Padrón continued, want to “completely deny this position, because we’re convinced that the pope follows the gospel, meaning the Church’s social teaching, and that he’s fundamentally with those who suffer the most, those most in need.”
This, he said, means the pope supports everything that is done in favor of Venezuela and on the side of the bishops’ conference.
Talking about the encounter with Francis, Padrón defined it as “cordial, fraternal, very simple.” They had the freedom to say what the needed to say, and the pope established a dialogue with them, asking questions.
“We reiterated our full communion with him, and he reiterated his full support to us,” Padrón said.
The prelates also gave the pope two documents. One lists the 70 people, mostly youth, who have been killed by government repression amid protests that have overtaken the streets of Caracas and many other cities in Venezuela. The second was detailed documentation of what the conference has done so far.
The bishops, six in total, were also received by the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who until being tapped by the pope for his present job was the papal representative in Venezuela. They had lunch with Parolin, and later met with officials of Caritas Internationalis, the Vatican’s charitable arm.
Padrón spoke with journalists in Spanish and Italian outside the doors of the Caritas office in Palazzo San Calisto, one of the Vatican’s extra-territorial properties, located in Rome’s famed Trastevere neighborhood.
“The government has the desire, the will, the scope, of having a submissive, silent people that doesn’t protest,” he said. The way to guarantee this, the bishop continued, is by having a people that has “no food, no medicine, a people busy in finding solutions to daily problems.
“A people that is busy, that suffers, that is sick, doesn’t have the will to revolt against anyone,” Padrón said.
Venezuelans are protesting many things, but the final straw for many people came in late March when Maduro announced he was calling for a constitutional assembly and revoking the power of the National Assembly, in the hands of the opposition since 2015.
The bishops, together with the Vatican, have long called for a dialogue-based solution to the crisis, but the conditions for the dialogue have been clear from the start. On Thursday, Padrón spoke of a “Magna Carta”, referring to a letter sent by Parolin to both the government and the opposition last December, where he detailed four elements needed for dialogue to be possible.
Padrón listed them, almost as if he’d memorized the missive: “We need a humanitarian corridor, the recognition of the National Assembly, the release of the political prisoners, and resuming the electoral calendar.”
Yet since the government has refused to move forth with any of these issues, he said, today “there’s no possibility of dialogue.”
Elections for governors were supposed to be called last year, but as Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino told Crux ahead of their meeting with Francis, Maduro refused to allow them because his party would likely lose.
The bishops believe that the pope has the contacts and the moral stance to appeal to governments and peoples from around the world, which can prove helpful for Venezuela.
Padrón is not sure the government has any intentions of listening to Francis, but “there’s a very objective situation, and that is that when states, governments and peoples from around the world talk about a situation, they have the power of changing it.”
The solution for Venezuela, he said, is for the government to acknowledge that their policies are mistaken, failing to meet the needs of the people. First and foremost, he said, it needs to provide food and medicine. Currently, he said, those basic goods are being brought into the country by the bishops and charitable institutions such as Caritas, through pieces of luggage which are sent to the bishops’ conference, and from where they’re relayed to hospitals and those in need.
Recent reports show that Venezuelans have lost, in average, 17 pounds in the past year due to food shortages and chronic malnutrition.
A recent Caritas report shows that over 11 percent of children under five are suffering either from moderate or severe acute malnutrition, one point higher than the threshold for child malnutrition set by the World Health Organization. In some places, it reaches 13 percent for the general population, 48 percent for children under five.
The latter is the most worrying of them all because it’s during infancy that the brain is developed, and without proper nutrition, the person will suffer long-time growth and cognitive delays.
Two weeks ago, the government accepted that the Church can receive foreign help, but the process is so difficult, that it’s virtually impossible. In theory, “we have the authorization, but when we try to solve the issues, we’ve found difficulties that make it impossible.
“We cannot trust the words from the government,” Padrón said.