ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE—On his way to Colombia for a Sept. 6-11 visit, Pope Francis also asked for prayers for neighboring Venezuela, so the country currently gripped by both political and economic crises can find “beautiful stability.”
The Venezuela question has been looming over Francis’s fifth trip to Latin America since it was announced earlier in the year. Members of the Venezuelan bishops’ conference will be in Colombia, and announced via Twitter on Wednesday that they will have a private session with the Latin American pontiff on Sept. 7, Thursday.
At the beginning of the flight from Rome to Bogotá, the Colombian capital, Francis, as is his custom, greeted journalists travelling with him and asked them to pray for the trip.
“I’d like to say that on this flight, we will fly over Venezuela,” Francis said, in the official version of his remarks released by the Vatican later in the day.
“Therefore, [I suggest] a prayer also for Venezuela, so that it may have dialogue and the country will find a beautiful stability, through dialogue with all.”
Francis has repeatedly expressed concern about events in Venezuela and is kept briefed on the country’s deteriorating political and economic situation by the Vatican’s secretary of state, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who was the papal ambassador in Caracas between 2009 and 2013.
But many in the Venezuelan opposition were skeptical of his offer last year to sponsor dialogue with the government, seeing it as playing into Maduro’s strategy of buying time, and felt validated when the talks broke down with little to show for them except briefly cooling a nationwide protest movement.
Alarmed by the rising levels of violence amid protests, local bishops took the unusual step in April of traveling to Rome to personally brief Francis on how bad the situation had become. The June visit was all the more significant because the bishops themselves initiated it instead of being invited by the Vatican, as is usually the case.
“Today in Venezuela, there’s no ideological conflict between left and right,” the bishops said in their greeting to Francis. “There’s a battle between a government that has become a dictatorship serving its own interests and an entire people who want freedom and are searching desperately, at the risk of their own lives, for bread, medicine, security, work, elections, freedom and autonomous political power.”
Since then, Vatican officials have appeared more willing to challenge Maduro in public. The pope’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, repeatedly has said that elections are the only exit strategy — a solution which, so far, Maduro has declined to embrace.
For protocol reasons, whenever a pope flies through a country’s airspace, they send telegrams to the heads of states of those nations. In this case, Francis is expected to send one both to President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, and also to American President Donald Trump, although neither is expected to be politically charged.
Afterwards, Francis greeted each journalist individually, many of whom gave him books, letters and pictures, or took the opportunity to ask him for small things, from blessings to short greetings.
Asked by Crux about when he might be going to his home county, Argentina, Pope Francis answered “I don’t know. I still don’t know …”
It’s been a subject of curiosity for some time why history’s first pope is now returning to the region for the fifth time, but still has not made, or even scheduled, a homecoming to Argentina. Some observers believe it’s because Francis doesn’t want to show favoritism, some say he’s wary about being sucked into domestic politics back home, and other advance different interpretations.
Journalist Maria Antonieta Collins, of the Spanish-language media outlet Univision, gave the pope a DVD collection of routines by Cantiflas, Mexico’s — and Pope Francis’s — all-time favorite comedian.
“A pope also needs to laugh,” she told Francis, to which he responded: “And this man made you laugh without reducing the [intellectual] level!”
The videos are not available to buy online, so Collins traveled from Miami, where she’s based, to Mexico City.
“If you can give that man something to smile about, everything is worth it,” she told Crux.
Francis also addressed Colombia in his brief remarks to journalists aboard the flight, calling this trip “a little special.”
“It’s a trip to help Colombia move ahead in its path of peace,” he said, referring to efforts to end the country’s 50-year civil conflict, the longest-running in the world.
“I ask for prayer for that during the trip,” he said.
The Associated Press also contributed to this report.