CIUDAD GUAYANA, Venezuela — There probably aren’t too many groups more deserving of a spiritual retreat than the priests of the Diocese of Ciudad Guayana, located on Venezuela’s eastern frontier.
Already facing a severe clergy shortage, the 40-or-so priests minister to nearly 1 million Catholics amid the country’s worsening economic crisis, doing their best to respond to the corporal and spiritual challenges bred by widespread poverty and violence.
But when the diocese holds a five-day retreat for its priests next year, they’ll have to host it somewhere other than their quiet retreat center. The building was recently burglarized; thieves stripped it of its copper piping and stole the air conditioning units, looking to sell the goods on Venezuela’s black market, one of the few reliable ways to make money in the economically crippled country.
“We’re going to do the retreat somewhere,” said Father Gregory Schaffer, a Minnesota native who has ministered in Ciudad Guayana for the past 20 years and currently serves as diocesan vicar general. “It just won’t be as easy as it has been in the past.”
The scenario captures something of the present-day reality of the Catholic Church in Venezuela, as Church ministers spend themselves to alleviate the effects of a crisis from which they themselves receive no quarter.
The same challenges that are affecting the population at large — from food shortages, to mass emigration, to violent crime — are also affecting the Church and her laborers, creating challenging obstacles to ministry in the already-beleaguered nation.
“This crisis has hit the Church hard, impacting its structure and its ability to act,” said Bishop Juan Carlos Bravo Salazar, shepherd of the Diocese of Acarigua-Araure in central Venezuela.
A Suffering Church
Many of the struggles the Church in Venezuela is facing are the product of simple math: As the Venezuelan economy has been decimated over the past five years, Venezuelans have less and less purchasing power. And with less money left over, there is less and less to put in the collection plate on Sunday.
This negatively affects not only ministry efforts, like outreach and food programs, but the ministers themselves. In many places, if a priest doesn’t receive enough assistance from his parish, he can end up without food or needed medical assistance.
In Ciudad Guayana, Father Schaffer says six priests need diocesan subsidies just to eat, and even then, the diocese isn’t able to offer much.
“Many of the priests are going hungry,” he said, adding that a number of pastors have taken jobs on the side, from construction to civil law, in order to make ends meet.
The shortfall of funding is also putting a strain on Venezuela’s future priests.
Buen Pastor Seminary in Ciudad Bolívar ended the most recent academic year weeks early, after the seminary faculty realized they wouldn’t be able to feed their 40-plus seminarians for the normal duration.
“Finding enough food for my seminarians is the hardest part of my job,” shared Father Hermes Bastidas, Buen Pastor’s rector.
Deteriorating conditions have also created challenges for foreign religious men and women who serve in Venezuela. Due to a combination of inadequate access to food and health care, as well as greater difficulty in obtaining religious visas from the Venezuelan government, some religious orders have pulled their members out of the country entirely.
This trend is especially challenging for dioceses in east Venezuela, where the Church is uniquely dependent upon foreign priests and religious. In the Archdiocese of Ciudad Bolívar, Archbishop Ulises Antonio Gutiérrez Reyes reported that three religious communities have recently closed local operations. Father Schaffer says the Diocese of Ciudad Guayana has lost six women religious communities in the past eight years and recently lost a religious sister who was doing pastoral service for 42 small communities without a priest, while also running a small school.
“That’s a huge area where we’re not going to have a pastoral presence anymore,” Father Schaffer said of the sister, who was called back to Paraguay by her order. “It’s really hard.”
But foreign religious aren’t the only ones leaving the country.
Venezuela has experienced a mass exodus of its own citizens in recent years. In 2017 alone, it is estimated that 1 million Venezuelan refugees (approximately 3% of the nation’s total population of 31 million people) crossed into neighboring Colombia, a number that reflects only those who entered through official checkpoints.
Many of those leaving are young people and professionals, and their absence is felt acutely in parishes. Emigres also include chancery employees and other key Catholic professionals, and there have also been reports of local priests leaving the country in search of more comfortable settings.
“The departure of so many people from the country puts us in a serious deficit of well-trained pastoral agents here in Venezuela,” said Bishop Bravo.
Although the Catholic Church is highly regarded among the Venezuelan people for its dedication to those suffering, Church personnel are not immune from the violent crime that has exploded in recent years. Priests have been mugged in the streets and even robbed in their own homes.
“It’s just a part of our daily life here,” said Father Schaffer, whose former associate pastor was held up and robbed at gunpoint.
But priests are also increasingly becoming the targets of a different kind of violence: state-sponsored attacks aimed at intimidating Catholic leaders from speaking out against the abuses of socialist dictator Nicolas Maduro and his regime.
In 2017, government supporters known as “Chavistas” attacked Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, the archbishop of Caracas, after he had celebrated Mass. Later that year, the headquarters of the Venezuelan Bishops’ Conference was ransacked by an angry mob. There have been additional reports of vandalism of churches and attacks on priests, and in 2018, Maduro accused two bishops of “hate crimes” after homilies critical of government neglect and misdeeds.
“Faced with this, we need to remember that love always wins and that it has already won from the cross, from the Crucified,” said Archbishop Jose Luis Azuaje, the head of the bishops’ conference, in a statement this summer.
Help From Abroad
Church leaders like Archbishop Gutiérrez of Ciudad Bolívar are clear that the Catholic Church in Venezuela can’t use the crisis “as a means to solicit aid and turn into beggars.”
At the same time, though, the archbishop recognizes the importance of accepting support from the universal Church. His archdiocese receives assistance from foreign institutes and remittances from Venezuelans who’ve moved away. This support helps provide for the basic needs of his priests, so they can continue serving their people.
“This approach echoes the motto of Caritas, ‘Help us to help,’” he said, referring to the international Catholic aid agency, the national chapter of which he’s the vice president. “We’ve adopted this motto and feel it is fundamental to supporting our priests.”
Bishop Bravo emphasizes that the greatest support the Church in Venezuela can receive is through prayer, while also echoing the current need for outside assistance.
“There is no way that parishes can provide priests with adequate medical treatment and even food,” he said. “This has only been possible with external help.”
Archbishop Gutiérrez says his diocese receives some assistance from the U.S., though the diocese could certainly use more to help strengthen its social programs and meet more of the basic needs of the seminary, which serves nine dioceses.
“It would be helpful to have more support in this area — not pity, but support,” he said.
Back to the Basics
Back in Ciudad Guayana, Church leaders are grateful for external support they receive, but they’re not letting financial limitations stop them from addressing what they can. The diocese is moving forward with the construction of the Cathedral of St. John Paul II, built on the site where the late Pope celebrated Mass as part of his 1985 visit.
Father Schaffer said there were ambitious plans for the cathedral, which has been in development for decades, but they have been laid aside for something achievable in present circumstances.
“We have to build with what we have,” he said.
Current approaches to ministry in Venezuela reflect this more practical view, and many Church leaders consider some of the constraints to ministry as an opportunity to return to the core of the Gospel.
“The situation has challenged and moved the Church to opt for a more missionary approach, accompanying the people in their needs,” said Bishop Bravo, echoing Pope Francis’s recent exhortation for the Venezuelan bishops to “stay close to the people,” especially those who are suffering.
Bishop Bravo says it’s a corrective from previous approaches that saw the Church “far removed” from the struggles of those on the margins.
“We’ve become aware that our destiny is the destiny of the poorest,” he added.
Likewise, Archbishop Gutiérrez believes that the current crisis in Venezuela has helped the clergy return to a priestly identity more rooted in Christ, the Selfless Servant.
“We are convicted by the knowledge that those most needed on this shipwreck are us — priests. The Lord has placed us here as instruments of reconciliation, encounter and encouragement.”
The archbishop says the crisis is “bound with purification” of the Church and points to the increasing solidarity between the Venezuelan people and the Church, and camaraderie among the clergy. But he also acknowledges that many of the faithful are deeply saddened and disillusioned by a crisis that has now dragged on over many years.
“In the long run, I believe the fruits of this crisis will be great, but, yes, they will come at a great cost.”