Venezuelan Church Takes Stock in Post-Chavez Era

Archbishop Diego Rafael Padrón Sánchez heads the Archdiocese of Cumana and serves as president of the Venezuelan bishops' conference. Some six months after the death of strongman Hugo Chavez, the Church remains wary of the new government, wi hch promises but little change from the policies of its predecessor. The Chavez regime clashed with the Church over the control over Church-run schools and for seeking to ban religious education from the country's public schools during regular hours. One of the Church's biggest challenges is the growth of charismatic Protestant Churches. Meanwhile, shortages of basic goods affect many parts of the country. Archbishop Sanchez spoke with Aid to the Church Need, an international Catholic Charity, in Rome, Oct. 10, 2013.

During your recent ad limina visit, Pope Francis asked the Church in Venezuela to be a Church close to and open to all -- to promote peace and reconciliation in the country.

Archbishop Sánchez: The Pope insisted very much on the closeness to the people and the mediating role of the Church in promoting dialogue between the different factions in country -- specifically between the government and the opposition

To establish such a dialogue has been difficult under the presidency of Hugo Chavez. Has the situation improved?

We have started the journey. That is to say, steps have been taken on both sides towards setting up meetings -- a door has been opened which a few months ago was closed. In this sense, I would dare to say that the relations between the Church and government have improved. The government recognizes the Church as legitimate participant in the overall national debate and--since our most recent meeting -- also as a mediator between Venezuela's political adversaries.

What about the opposition? Are you subject to criticism from that camp for not directly endorsing its demands?

We have also had a number of meetings and dialogues with leaders of the opposition. We are acting according to our own judgment -- on behalf of the people in general and not of any one particular party or faction -- and we aren't being criticized by entering into dialogue with both camps. We would be if we only chose one side or the other.

October 7 marked the one-year anniversary of the controversial reelection of President Chavez; the past year saw his passing and the installation of President Maduro, which provoked considerable protests from the opposition. What has changed in the past year?

For starters, Maduro is not Chávez. Even though President Maduro has been at pains to call himself "the son of Chávez" and pledge to follow in his footsteps, his government does mark a new beginning. For him everything is new, and he is new in everything. So far, the balance is clearly negative. The president's plans hinge on emergency measures. This approach might be based on the Venezuelan saying: Como vaya viniendo, vamos viendo, "take life as it comes," or "let's make it up as we go along." In other words, his plans are off-the-cuff reactions to each new situation.

There has been worrisome news about vital shortages, of food, and hygiene items. There are reports of rationing in various parts of the country. The government signed an agreement with Colombia to import 600 million dollars' worth of food. Is the situation as drastic as all this sounds?

It certainly is. We have gone from being an exporting country to a country that is importing everything. We have gone from being a country where there was everything to a country where the most basic products are lacking. But I cannot go on talking about shortages -- because it is prohibited.

Venezuela used to be a wealthy country.

"Used to be" is right. However, the country continues to be rich in terms of the capacity of its people, the wealth of its soil and the abundance of its natural resources. But we are very poor when it comes to the logistics of production. Today, Venezuela is producing practically nothing. I repeat, everything is being bought in from outside the country--often at very high prices. At the same time, the national currency has been greatly devalued. For this reason, even if there might be more money on the streets, the people are in fact poorer.

Still more worrying is the news about the violence in the country. The Church herself has been the target. The premises of the episcopal conference in Caracas were attacked nine times in the space of just two weeks. Each year, violence claims 19,000 lives. Can anything be done to check it?

Other Churches have been affected by the violence as well. But this is not even the most serious problem we face: it is the fact that today there is practically no family that does not have reason to grieve over the impact of violence. In this we are indeed all equal. The violence does not distinguish between officialistas and the opposition, nor between capitalists and socialists. Nonetheless, I am convinced that this social situation can and will change. But the measures implemented by the government thus far are inadequate. It is not enough to tackle effects or symptoms -- we must tackle the root causes of our woes.

Good things are happening, too. World Youth Day in Brazil featured many young Venezuelans, who brought a noticeable wave of color to the proceedings, and in November, in Maracaibo, the Latin American Missionary Congress will be held. So there is indeed movement and life in the Church in Venezuela. What are your hopes for the Congress?

Yes, not everything is black. In the midst of the pain and sadness of such a difficult situation, the younger genarations have not simply given up. They are finding the courage to confront the challenges facing them. Despite an adverse economic situation, there were 6,000 young Venezuelans who took part in the World Youth Day. Such a high number is a sign of hope. What the young especially convey is courage and hope. The Catholic people are proud of their young people. The same thing will happen at the American Missionary Congress. With the help of God, it will be an extraordinary event during this Year of Faith, which will motivate all of us to bear witness to the ultimate meaning of life, solidarity among all the people and the importance of evangelization.

Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries.