The crisis in Venezuela has many faces. Among them are the faces of a small part of the population that is hardly ever mentioned in the news and reports coming from the South American country, namely those of the priests and other members of the clergy. The Venezuelan Church, just like the rest of society, is suffering. However, it is hard to believe that people who give so much to others and in particular to those most in need should also be suffering from a lack of everything: food, medicine, etc.
“I teach at a school and have taken over the pastoral care at a hospital so that I at least have the bare necessities for survival. I also lecture at the seminary. This barely keeps me afloat,” said Fr Ángel Colmenares, a young priest from the diocese of La Guaira on the central coast of Venezuela. “In these critical times, temptation is everywhere. The worst temptation is to get used to these circumstances, to start believing that ‘times are bad, and so there is nothing I can do.’”
The scarcity of material resources has made leaving the country another strong temptation. According to the United Nations, more than four million people have emigrated from Venezuela in the last few years. “We priests also feel tempted to leave the country. After all, clergy are needed elsewhere as well. When the family falls upon hard times, or parents or siblings can no longer earn a living, leaving becomes one way to help them.”
However, the difficulties that religious and priests face are not only financial. Last year, about ten priests had to leave the country to receive medical treatment and at least four died because of a lack of basic medicines for cancer or diabetes. Robberies and violence are other problems: Fr Irailuis García from Barquisimeto, for example, was killed in July 2018 during a robbery.
Fr Ángel walks down the streets, paths, and stairs of the city district of Ezequiel Zamora, a very poor section of the city located in the hills of Catia La Mar. He came here as a newly ordained priest only two years ago. He is greeted by several neighbors on the way to celebrate Mass in the parish church or one of the three other chapels of the parish. They are very happy to see him. “Many cannot believe that anyone would come here to this conflict-ridden district. But I want to be close to all and bring them the Gospel with joy and without being stingy with my time and help for anyone.”
In these difficult times of crisis, when most people are just fighting to survive and to have enough to eat, Fr Ángel has become a driving force for the community – becoming not only a father or brother but even a builder. “We are tearing down the wall that was built around the church. This is supposed to be an outward sign that the Church wants to be close to the people. We had to repair the roof and set up several rooms for catechesis.”
“When you suggest something big to the people, they are willing to do it, even though times are hard. The families here have almost nothing, but they still help out with the work that needs doing in the church. I contribute the same amount from the Mass stipends that I receive. Little by little, we are getting things done. We want the best for Our Lord,” the priest explained. “I encourage everyone to always be happy and prepared to spread the message throughout the entire neighborhood that the Lord is here, that there is a truth here. The only commandment that Jesus repeatedly talks about in the Gospel is that we should be joyful. He said, ‘Rejoice!’ The Lord wants us to be joyful and we have to show everyone our joy in the risen Lord, in spite of all the difficulties.”
The various events that are held in the parish “Blessed Mary of Saint Joseph” are not only about alleviating material poverty. Rather, the focus is on spiritual poverty. “In addition to the economic crisis, the society as a whole is suffering a profound moral crisis. Theft, alcohol abuse and prostitution are on the rise. The people who want to survive do not have a problem with stooping to these things. This engenders distrust and uncertainty and makes it impossible to live side by side with one another,” Fr Colmenares explained.
In these difficult times, the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is a source of support for the Venezuelan Church. Fr Ángel receives aid in the form of Mass stipends. He also has been granted a somewhat different kind of support to help him meet the community’s basic needs: a bed, a washing machine, and a refrigerator. In the latter, the priest keeps fresh the food that he gives to the poor. This is also a great help for the food banks that the diocese runs in different parish centers because it keeps the meat and fruit from spoiling before being distributed to those in need of food.
Fr Ángel Colmenares expressed his thanks for the support provided by ACN. “Most of all, thank you for your prayers. Venezuela needs a lot of prayers. We never would have thought that we would ever experience conditions like these in a country that is as rich as this one. It is important that Venezuela is not left to its own devices. Years ago, Venezuela became home to many. Today, many Venezuelans are leaving the country. We ask the Lord to help us and to shelter us beneath His Holy Mantle. We may not be at war, but there have been more casualties than in a war. The realities here are harsher than in a war zone. The war that rages here is a social, moral and political one. We have to face this reality. We have to take God’s hand as we go forward.”
Over the last few years, the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has increased its support for the relief efforts and pastoral care carried out by the Church in Venezuela. Mass stipends play an important role in safeguarding the livelihood of priests. For many such as Fr Ángel, they are a means of securing their livelihood and sharing the bare necessities of life with those who are most in need.