Cardinal Baltazar Enrique Porras Cardozo in Rimini (Photo: Meeting Archive)

Venezuela: "Within fatigue, we are joyful Christians"

The exhibition on Blessed José Gregorio Hernández, his first time at the Meeting, the challenges of a country in crisis. Cardinal Baltazar Enrique Porras Cardozo, Archbishop of Caracas, speaks.
Maria Acqua Simi

One of the most beautiful surprises at the recent Rimini Meeting was the exhibition dedicated to Blessed José Gregorio Hernández. The Venezuelan doctor – born on 26 October 1864 and beatified on 30 April 2021 – always worked for the poor and to build peace in a world torn apart by the First World War. His life, dedicated to medicine and science, was not without suffering: due to his poor health he could not become a priest. He became an "itinerant contemplative" as a Franciscan tertiary, continuing to care for the sick and the last among the last. The exhibition, which traces his life and works, was also desired and awaited by the Diocese of Caracas, so much so that Cardinal Baltazar Enrique Porras Cardozo, Metropolitan Archbishop of the Venezuelan capital, came to Italy in person to see it. "I took my time: I wanted to make this trip. I return home cherishing these precious moments of authentic fraternity.”

You are here for the first time: what impact did the Meeting have?
It is a beautiful experience. Here you learn many things and you see in action that "human existence is an inexhaustible friendship". I had the opportunity to visit some exhibitions and stands, to meet people. I believe that the Meeting and the movement of CL are a help not only for the Church, but for the whole world, to make it a more fraternal place. They help unity. It is not easy to build peace in the world, it is a long process that must start from the heart of each person. And it is a process that must take into account the respect and dignity of the other, always. As Pope Francis says, the marginalised must be at the centre, those who live on the borders and not those in power. It is the most fragile who ask for friendship, justice and hope, while today the world is ravaged by war and violence. Here at the Meeting I see a beautiful attempt to create this fraternity. That is why I will return.

The exhibition on Blessed José Gregorio Hernández was among the most visited...
All these people who worked to make the exhibition possible, the volunteers, those who are out in the sun in the car parks but are always joyful... it is wonderful. The exhibition is truly a gift and I am happy that you have also been able to get to know the figure of Blessed Hernández in Italy, because this doctor is truly loved not only in Venezuela, but throughout Latin America! I think that his untiring contribution to peace, his dedication to the poor in whom he saw the face of God, and his authentic faith are still a timely message for all. Every believer should follow the path traced by José Gregorio: a layman in love with Christ. I must say, I see some of his spirit in the people of the Meeting.

Those who have seen the exhibition also learnt more about Venezuela. Can you help us too? What is the situation like today and what role does the Church play?
The socio-political situation is very difficult. Today in my country the conditions are hard: you cannot find work, there is a shortage of basic necessities. It is not easy to live like this and bear witness to Christianity. But we, as the Church, have chosen to collaborate with everyone ¬– NGOs, institutions and parties, without distinction – for the good of our people. This is why the Church in Venezuela is still much loved by the people. What creates unity is the recognition of the dignity of the person, and so starting from there, working on respect for human rights, we can begin to do something. We are striving to be close to the people by helping projects that guarantee access to medical care, food and water, education and training, or by supporting in the search for work. We live a closeness with our people, we are not distant. This makes the Venezuelan Church a living and credible Church.

Have all the difficulties your people are facing not undermined their trust in the good Lord?
No, on the contrary! Faith has been strengthened, but joy has also been strengthened. Joy is possible even when things are not going well, because fatigue makes us all equal before God. We Bishops and Cardinals do not consider ourselves 'above others', we work together with all, for all. Synodality is a real path, undertaken long ago by the Church of Latin America. Pope Francis showed us this at Aparecida (in 2007 Bergoglio, then Archbishop of Buenos Aires, led the work of the 5th Episcopal Conference of Latin American countries), with Evangelii gaudium, opening up a great possibility for peace in the world.

The Pope speaks of creativity for peace: how do you interpret this?
To be creative one must first of all have great respect for the other, observe them, listen to them, welcome them. Then we can find a way. For us in Latin America and Venezuela this is normal, because for us the relationship with the 'other' is daily life, since our people are deeply rich in diversity.

Let us talk about a painful fact: the exodus of millions of Venezuelans. How do you care for them, their lives, their human and faith journey, even thousands of kilometres away?
Yes, it is indeed a painful wound. Millions of people have left the country and among them many religious men and women. But I would like to focus on the other side of the coin that no one ever sees. Today all of them are witnesses of faith in America, in Europe, in Australia, in Asia... in all the places where they have gone to live. Venezuelan emigrants, wherever they arrive, first look for the church. They may be in difficulty, but the first point is to look for the Christian community because their faith is great. And they do not seek it just to find material support, but because the faith of my people is truly great. What we have sown in Venezuela is not lost forever. Emigrants become missionaries, witnesses of Jesus as they go out into the world. And this is true for the religious, but also for the lay people: because my people love to work and work well. There are many Venezuelan expatriate doctors, for example, who are greatly appreciated. Where they arrive they are a hope, because our culture that is so open is a gift for everyone.

And for those who stay?
Those who stay have to start all over again, every day. Right now young people are leaving, they are leaving the country, and the big problem is that grandparents, the elderly, remain, and they are often alone. They carry a great wound: they feel abandoned, sometimes depression and sadness set in. How can we help them? We try with closeness, concrete and spiritual help, but also by collaborating with institutions. It is not easy, but it is possible. In Caracas we try to do it every day.

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What is the daily life of a Cardinal Archbishop of Caracas like?
When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is have a moment of silence and personal prayer where I can be before the Lord. Immediately afterwards, the visits among the people begin, the meetings for the formation of the clergy and laity, the dialogues with institutions: from the world of universities and culture to politicians, entrepreneurs and NGOs. I seek a respectful and free relationship with everyone. I dedicate about fourteen hours a day to these meetings, because they are precious for me and for my people.

Have you ever felt alone?
No, thank God there are many friends who accompany me. Bishops, priests, lay people, friends, men and women religious... They all go among the poor, with great joy and great faith, to bring human companionship, to bring Jesus. I learn from them and with them I am never alone.