In Venezuela, the Catholic Church endures among a revolution's ruins
Political campaigns are supposed to be exciting. They are often contentious.
What they are not supposed to be is macabre, but that is how the last campaign of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in 2013 can only be described—the slow-motion suicide of a man bloated and bald from disease, careening recklessly around the country in the bed of a pickup truck. By the end, he could barely walk.
President Chavez’s last campaign was fundamentally morbid. Gone was talk of the extraordinary plans of yesteryear—they had all been tried anyway. No more the dizzying promises from headier days when the revolution had energy, when it had money and purpose. There were not even any appeals to the future; even the most fervent of disciples knew in their hearts that this was in fact not a campaign, but a farewell tour.
President Chavez’s last campaign was fundamentally morbid.
After 14 years of business seizures and petro-dependency, the “Bolivarian” project was ending. No surprise there. The national economy was just about completely dependent on oil exports for foreign exchange; the currency was in a shambles—even the “strong bolivar” launched by Mr. Chavez in 2008 had lost two-thirds of its value. A spiraling murder rate brought Venezuela into grim competition with the likes of Baghdad and Medellin in the 1980s.
The revolution was exhausted; but a growing opposition had energy and youth and, more important, a forgotten idea to rally around—liberty. All the revolutionaries had was Hugo. And he had one last role to play.
It is hard to understand why Mr. Chavez chose this remarkable, public exit. Why not fly to Paris or London or Brasília for treatment instead? Maybe he was in denial or in fear that his legacy would be destroyed by the young upstart governor challenging him. Who knows? What struck me most, however, was not the weary exhortations of this last campaign, it was a short prayer service, livestreamed from inside the tiny chapel on Mr. Chavez’s opulent finca in Barinas State.
There, in front of a few family and friends—the suffering Jesus, crown of thorns on his head and cross on his back, as a backdrop—the Hugo Chavez of socialist legend finally became merely a man again as he wept and pleaded with his maker: “And so I say to God, if what I have experienced and lived through has not been sufficient, but I lacked this [suffering], I welcome it. But give me life, though it be a blazing life. A painful life, I don’t care.
“Give me your crown, Christ, give it to me—that I bleed. Give me your cross, 100 crosses and I will bear them, but give me life because I still have things to do.”
Even a despot who called himself the true heir of Christ and dismissed the church’s bishops as perverts and degenerates in the end returned home.
It was a long time getting there. Eighteen years: that is how long the revolutionaries have directed events in Venezuela—25 if you count the coup attempt in 1992 that set Mr. Chavez at the center of national politics. Some 250,000 people have been murdered between 1998 and 2015, according to the Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia—casualties of what can best be described as a civil war.
More than $1 trillion dollars in oil revenue has been lost, stolen or given away to buy the next in a series of “revolutionary” elections; 8,000 businesses bankrupt, victims of policies that were supposed to help the poor but mostly helped shore up support for Mr. Chavez; over 700 percent inflation rate in 2017; the return of diseases that had been on the run, including malaria and dengue; hunger, even starvation in some pockets of the country.
Two generations were stolen as students were put to studying Fidel Castro and memorizing the poems of Che Guevara. Two million Venezuelans were put to flight to Panama City and Costa Rica and Miami and New York and London and Paris and Dubai—6.4 percent of the national population. Crime became an economic life blood. Some 41 percent of cocaine stock destined for European markets is now trafficked across the sacred waters of the Orinoco or to a first stop in West Africa from the main airport’s presidential runway. The official mantra, “socialism or death,” played back in an endless loop became all that was left of the caudillo’s failed regime.
And through all that turmoil the church endured.
I have a friend who once was an archeologist. Not a famous man making history-shaping discoveries, but a simple community man, laboring for his municipal government, approving building permits and overseeing excavations for the odd basement or new minimart. His humble responsibility was to assure that no part of his nation’s heritage was inadvertently destroyed—surely an old world problem, one for places where everything is infused with the history of the ancients and civilizations remembered and forgotten, resting one upon the other in layers of birth, vibrancy, decadence and decay. One uncovered layer might be thought to tell the whole story, but my friend learned that it is always wiser to go deeper, to seek out the next layer and the one under that; each civilization building upon the previous and adding to it something new, the story of an irrepressible society.
The Catholic Church is like that. It draws deeply from what Hebrews calls a “great a cloud of witnesses” (12:1), nestling the stories of the terrestrial tribulations of the oppressed within the epic struggle of people to live in freedom and practice their faith in peace. And as she has braced herself against the surging tides of totalitarianism in Venezuela, the layers of her resilience—lain carefully during years defying the darkness—show themselves again.
Latin America’s Catholics have never been comfortable with the all-male nature of the West’s Trinity. They are a people assailed by machismo, male innuendo and bravado. They have seen parades of soldiers stomping down the central avenues of their capitals; they are a people familiar with the violence of men and the impunity that can envelope it; a people who have lost sons and daughters to undeclared wars that have spanned decades; they are families destroyed by alcoholism and infidelity and abuse.
I suppose it is a natural reaction. While men might not be trusted, who need turn away from the Virgin?
She has become an important aspect of the faith in Latin America, the loving edges of the mother smoothing over some of the roughness and violence of men; humanizing the church, making it safer and nurturing.
For Venezuela, so accustomed to male mischief, this is surely true. Venezuela is custodian to a crowd of Marys: the Virgen de Coromoto, protecting the memory of the indigenous conversion to the new faith from her imposing cement cathedral in Portuguesa State; the Virgen del Valle rests in delicate splendor inside a white-washed cathedral under bougainvillea and ivy in Porlamar on the eastern Islands of Nueva Esparta, reminding the islanders of the day she saved the population from a hurricane and a drought; the Virgen de Chiquinquirá, “La Chinita,” appears to the lake people of the west to assure them that God loves those who serve him.
The festivals surrounding the canonizations and memorializations and miracles are a part of the fabric of Venezuela’s culture. The periodic celebrations of the Virgin’s appearance have become a resplendent parade of faith and family and hope for the future—a technicolor reminder that there are still moments of gentleness, of love and tradition away from the acrid breath of the brute military men who commandeered the country.
Of course the revolutionaries probably do not like this Mary business one bit. Spaces outside of their control, responding to a higher authority? Something soft and gentle that is nevertheless stronger and more resilient? That captures the national imagination naturally while they work so hard and so unsuccessfully to implant their insipid ideas?
When the state becomes predatory, the defenders of the faith are called upon to point people in the right direction, away from the violence of the authorities and back to God.
It aggravates their oversized sense of importance. They wrap themselves in arrogance and godlessness as if the land had not breathed before they walked across its crust; as if their past did not come from the mountains and the hills and the rivers and the oceans, emerging from the faith of their fathers and grandfathers. Until they at last need him in the end too.
During the so-called dark ages in Europe, not all was dark. The continent was broken into feudal city-states; armies at the service of petty lords, violence and poverty and death a daily portion. During these times the light of the church broke brightly through the darkness. A merciful forerunner to the NGOs that now wander the torn places of the earth were the legions of monks and nuns—not as they are often portrayed cloistered away in their abbeys, but spreading out across the land—running soup kitchens and fielding doctors and helping the poor and the blind and the destitute. This noble tradition of church service continues into modern times of course.
I have walked through Don Bosco centers in places like Barquisimeto where a group of heroic priests patiently care for youth with Down syndrome. Once children in acute need they are now young adults who have been abandoned or surrendered by their parents. They will never live alone, never have a job, a wife or a family. Segregated by degrees of disability from the slightly afflicted to those who cannot speak or control their bodies, they are cared for by the priests. Salted across Venezuela’s vast slums are Fe y Alegria church schools and radio stations and programs where the teachers provide quality education, love and care to the poorest children of the poorest families, so they too will be able to find their places in a hard world. I wonder how they are faring, 20 years after Hugo Chavez started his war on the free mind.
Corrupt states in the throes of decay often first grow like cosmic red giants across the land, expanding in their disorder to engulf all around them. But when the star finally goes supernova—it torches everything in its expanse and then collapses, leaving behind a blackened and desiccated land. That is what happened after Rome fell, and it is what is happening now in Venezuela. As in ancient Europe, the only lights that break this darkness will be the charities, many of which are run by the church.
The church has always been such a sanctuary—Becket and More, Robinson and Olaf. Venezuela even has its own martyrs of old—Monsignor Montes de Oca assassinated by the Nazis in the massacre of the Monastery of Cartujos en Massa in Italy. When the state becomes predatory, the defenders of the faith are called upon to point people in the right direction, away from the violence of the authorities and back to God. Reminding the people he is still there; he is still looking; he is still caring.
This important role continues in places where the state likes to pretend it is God.
Venezuela’s church has become such a place of refuge. As the revolutionaries attempt to brush aside the final vestiges of liberty and the freedom of God-fearing people to think and act as they know is best, it is no wonder that they have identified the church as perhaps the greatest threat to their project. Pro-government militia, known in Venezuela as “colectivos,” have even on a number of occasions disrupted Mass at churches in Caracas in attempts to silence church leaders.
And, in response, it is no wonder that Mother Church has grown to extend her protective wings over her people: Nixon Moreno, falsely accused of attacks on police, climbing the walls of the embassy of the Holy See in Caracas and finding sanctuary there; Universidad Católica Andrés Bello closing its doors against Chavista thugs. The Venezuelan bishops, supported by the Holy See, themselves calling for the people to “not be intimidated,” but instead to “rebel against the dictatorship peacefully and democratically” because “never before have so many Venezuelans had to eat garbage” as the message that was read recently from pulpits across the land stated.
The dictatorship is entering a new period with two possible outcomes: a collapse that makes way for a return to democracy or an “advancement” to an even more sinister authoritarianism.
I would be remiss if I did not also recognize that there have been missteps along the path of resistance. The Catholic Church is after all a political organization, just as it is a spiritual one. Pope Francis’ attempts to pull the church into stillborn dialogues with the narco-communists who govern Venezuela only shore up the regime’s legitimacy and hand another bitter disappointment to the nation’s citizen-warriors. Similarly the voting watchdog group Ojo Electoral attempted to monitor free-but-unfair elections for years, certifying each revolutionary step closer to the abyss.
Now Venezuela’s bishops call for a peaceful and democratic “rebellion” against President Nicholás Maduro’s dictatorship. They are not wrong in seeking to preserve the liberty of the faithful. The question is always how best to achieve this and proceed against the brutal polarization that populist regimes use to divide and conquer.
The church still struggles to find a way through the tension of its responsibility to the people of Venezuela and the demand that it remain true to itself and its divine mission.
As Venezuela’s political paralysis extends, its problems have degenerated, passing through an economic crisis and reaching its inevitable outcome as a humanitarian disaster. Through it all, the church remains engaged.
It has repeatedly called for the release of the political prisoners like Leopoldo Lopez. He had been illegally jailed three years ago after protesting against the regime. The church has spoken out constantly against the spiral of violence that Venezuela’s misrule has created. It has raised its voice to highlight the terrible conditions of those living in increasing poverty as it has repeatedly called for a definitive solution to the problem.
The new Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Father Arturo Sosa, is Venezuelan-born and a former instructor at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello. In his soft-spoken way, he has consistently pressed for a return to human freedom in Venezuela. Chavismo has been “a system of domination, not a political system that has legitimacy to function in tranquility,” he recently observed.
He has also described it “a statist regime.” He said, “From there to dictatorship is just one step.”Yet despite his strong criticism, Father Sosa has the ear of prominent members of the government of Mr. Maduro as it barely caretakes the apparent end of Chavismo. Even revolutionary firebrands like Maripili Hernández take note when he speaks.
“The advantage that Arturo has compared to many members of the Venezuelan Catholic hierarchy,” Ms. Hernández recently observed, “is that, even though he has had a position critical of the government, it has been both a serene and reasonable position.”
The dictatorship is entering a new period with two possible outcomes: a collapse that makes way for a return to democracy or an “advancement” to an even more sinister authoritarianism. Venezuela’s church has played many roles in the past, and soon she will be asked to fill a new role, laying another layer of her story as the inevitable concludes in Venezuela.
When St. Augustine wrote "City of God," the church was still in her youth, her fate was unsure and the empire that protected her had died. That early saint was forced to contemplate the future of the faith absent so great a benefactor.
He should not have been concerned. Faith—true faith in a true God—will always find a way. Imperial Rome was only the first of the many layers of the church’s epic story across time.
Powers great and small rise and fall. Sometimes whole civilizations crumble away and their stories are remembered no more. The dark crust of Venezuela's revolution is already cracking and decaying. Soon it will be gone and it will be brushed away and the people will think of the revolution no more.
But the story of the Venezuelan church will go on.