According to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and other international organisations, more than two million people have left Venezuela in the last few years. This forced displacement reflects the severe economic, political and social crisis that has befallen the country. The church in Venezuela is dealing with this situation together with the people by initiating social projects to relieve shortages in food and medicines. But the Church’s own situation can only be described as precarious – the bishops and priests themselves have next to nothing at the moment.
Bishop Oswaldo Azuaje of Trujillo, which is located in the eastern part of Venezuela, responded to the questions of the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). The charity has been supporting the Venezuelan church in its pastoral and social work. The interview focused on the recent ad limina visit of the Venezuelan episcopate to the pope in Rome as well as the church’s efforts to help those who have left the country and those in need who have remained.
In Venezuela, the diocese of Trujillo is one of the poorest regions in the country. How would you describe the situation at the moment?
Economically, Trujillo is one of the country’s poorest regions. It is located in the Andes, in a mountainous region that is predominantly rural. However, I would not describe the region as poor because it possesses great riches both in terms of culture and of the people living there. Daily life there is very similar to that in the rest of the country. We are suffering from shortages in food and medicines, many people have moved to other countries, the economy is stagnating. It could be that, when compared with the capital and a number of other larger cities in the country, the food shortage is more noticeable in the villages.
What message did Pope Francis give to the bishops and the Venezuelan people during the ad limina visit at the Vatican?
The pope was very open and friendly. We are quite fortunate that he comes from the same continent and we speak the same language. Pope Francis sat down right in our midst. We formed a circle around him and he said to us, “Tell me how you are doing.” We noticed that he knows a great deal about the church in Venezuela, what life is like in the country and the difficulties society is currently facing. He pointed out that we should be very close to the people, that we need to find answers to their needs. He reminded us, “Remain strong and close to the people. I know that you are already doing this, but I invite you to continue to do so.” He also invited us to offer resistance. This was the first time I have heard the term used in this context. Because it had nothing to do with politics, populism or with a military language. We are to offer resistance by remaining constant in our faith, in our hope and in our love.
How does the Church assist those people who are leaving the country?
I was able to visit the Columbian border in Táchira state. The diocese of San Cristóbal on the Venezuelan side and the diocese of Cúcuta on the Columbian side are making large-scale efforts. I mingled with the people who were crossing the border to Columbia. It is impressive: each day, thousands of people leave. Each day, the church feeds between 5,000 and 8,000 people, although these are just estimates of the numbers of people who are being taken care of by the church alone. Some do return, but not many. Those that return are people who, due to the shortages in Venezuela; were merely looking for something available only in Columbia. Once they have acquired it, they return home. Furthermore, the Church is also taking care of Venezuelan refugees in Peru, Ecuador and Brazil.
What are the consequences of this displacement?
In the parishes, there is a noticeable absence of young and middle-aged people. There is a growing incidence of Church attendance by older people accompanying their grandchildren. The parents have left in search of work. Several priests have told me that they no longer have a church choir because the young people have all left. They now have to find new choir members who can sing or play an instrument and train them. The people are being forced into leaving because of the extreme shortages in food and medicines. The people need them. However, they cannot find them in the country or buy them because money has devalued.
How is the Church responding to the needs of those people who have remained in the country?
In response to the food shortages, the parishes are preparing so-called “community stews” each day to ensure that those in need have something to eat. Signs of malnutrition are found among children, and also the elderly. My sister called me a few days ago. She is taking care of my mother and wanted to let me know that she could not find any chicken, eggs or meat. She did not know where else to go because she could not buy them in any store. Finding groceries is a very time-consuming process – if it is even possible at all. The daily search for food has become a Via Dolorosa.
How would you assess the aid that ACN is giving to the priests in your diocese?
I would first like to thank the Venezuelan people; all of those who have shared and continue to share the little that they have with us. Lately, however, we have become dependent upon help from outside. Life would be impossible without it. I would like to thank the church in Europe, particularly in Germany, Italy and Spain. It supports us so that we in turn can help our priests: Mass stipends allow them to live in a manner that is worthy of human beings. Moreover, this aid keeps us connected through prayer, and ensures that we do not lose hope. I pray to God for saintly priests, but also that these priests are able to support themselves in a worthy manner, so that they can serve the people of God and can live more in conformity with their calling.
A last message to the benefactors of ACN
Thanks to all of you, our parishes will be able to continue to offer consolation and shed light into the darkness that casts such a pall over Venezuela. The shortages in food and medicines, in water and electricity are a major source of stress, one that we need to fight against. Please pray for the bishops so that we do not succumb to temptation and throw in the towel. It is our responsibility to help the people by supporting the priests. Please continue to help us so that we in turn can ensure that our priests have a worthy means of subsistence, and thus be able to continue offering the community stews as well as medicines and other forms of aid.