Latin America

Archbishop of Maracaibo: "Evangelizing in time and out of time is the first challenge".

The general crisis in Venezuela is wearing down the population: more than three million people have left the country. In this context, what is the first challenge for the Venezuelan bishops? Pope Francis asks them to be close to the people and to foster trust in God. Bishop José Luis Azuaje, president of the Episcopal Conference, applies this closeness: evangelization is the first challenge.

Marcos Pantin-November 19, 2018-Reading time: 8 minutes

In the antechamber of the archbishop's office there is an atmosphere of cordial rivalry. There are many of us who aspire to an audience with Mons. José Luis Azuaje Ayala, president of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference and metropolitan archbishop of Maracaibo. The general crisis in the country has worn Venezuelans down. More than three million have emigrated in recent years. The figures published by Caritas International are staggering: poverty levels, hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages are unprecedented. And always under the incessant threat of unleashed and unpunished criminality.
The government remains deaf to the clamor of the people. Protests have risen throughout the country and have been mercilessly repressed. The number of political prisoners is increasing day by day and, with few exceptions, they are treated inhumanely. Everything tends to radicalize the sadness and undermine the hope of a bewildered people.
In this gloomy panorama, Venezuelans distrust both the government's promises and the opposition's appeals. However, they go to churches to hear the government speak.
of God. It is a delicate challenge for our Pastors.

How does pastoral action in Venezuela respond to the rapid social deterioration of the country?
-The Church on pilgrimage in Venezuela has made a great effort to renew itself. An example of this effort was the Plenary Council of Venezuela held between 2000 and 2006. Since then we have been working on the implementation of its resolutions.
It has not been an easy task. These years have been undermined by the political, economic and social problems that have hindered the realization of many of the proposed objectives. For example, a high percentage of those who made up the work teams in the pastoral areas have emigrated. Nevertheless, the Church continues to work, perhaps not as projected to the multitudes, but towards the catacombs where faith and hope are poured out like a torrent of grace.

What are the main challenges facing the Church in Venezuela?
-From this reality we have taken on serious pastoral challenges that we can formulate as questions: how to evangelize in the midst of a political and economic disaster that has plunged the majority of our population into poverty and the despair it brings? How to transmit the essence of the Christian message showing Jesus Christ as the Light of the world and the center of our life story, in a social reality where human rights are not respected and human dignity is trampled upon? What means to use so that the message reaches and sustains men and women in the midst of their sufferings?
To evangelize in time and out of time: this is the first challenge in the midst of so much confusion for society and institutions. For this we need a profound renewal of the Church that allows us to dialogue from the Gospel with the diverse realities of today's world. We live amidst so many circumstances that contradict the Gospel of Jesus Christ... It is necessary to listen to reality in order to find spaces for dialogue and discernment that will foster a credible and lasting process of evangelization.

Can you mention other current challenges?
-The promotion of human dignity is a challenge that concerns the Church in general. The Gospel has a very close relationship with the life of each person. The center of the Gospel is the merciful love of God manifested in Jesus Christ sent to redeem us, to save us, to free us from the bonds of personal and social sin. The Gospel of dignity clashes with so many manifestations of unjust structures in order to come to the defense of the most affected and vulnerable.

How should we live solidarity in this context?
-Another challenge for the Church is to teach solidarity in a world that promotes individualism and the culture of every man for himself. Solidarity is a Christian expression of active charity. Solidarity is to sustain, to remain in constant openness of service to others. In the face of the tendency to individualism and relativism, we find in solidarity a nucleus of elements well disposed to generate community in action, which also favors the implementation of justice.
Latin America is a great region. It has all the necessary elements to project itself as the realization of hope in the full light of day. We must return to love, to respect for others, to decency in the management of public affairs, to ethics, to morality in institutions.
Corruption and bad policies wreak havoc on our reality day by day. We must return to God. Our gaze must focus on the one who put everything on the line to save us: Jesus Christ.

What do the 50th anniversary of the CELAM conference in Medellin suggest to you?
-The proposals of Medellin are a light that has illuminated the ecclesial conscience and the history of faith of our peoples. They are a starting point for large-scale ecclesial transformations: doctrinal, pastoral, human promotion, renewal of ecclesial structures. In Medellín, an updated reading of the Second Vatican Council was proposed, and from it, possibilities of service and creativity have opened up in the evangelizing and pastoral sphere, together with human promotion and the struggle for justice and peace in a permanent option for the poor.
The proposals of that time have been updated in each of the General Conferences of the Latin American and Caribbean Episcopate. The most current is that of Aparecida in 2007. Times change, culture is transformed and, therefore, the Church must seek the best ways to convey the only message that does not change: the person of Jesus, his word and his work. The message is always reflected from the reverse side of history, from the poor and excluded, from those who feel in need of God. The spirituality that emerges from Medellin allows us to witness with greater clarity the love and mercy of God in the midst of our reality.

Many people abroad are concerned about what is happening in our country. What can you tell them about the Church in Venezuela?
-I can say that it is a humble and simple Church, which carries out the religious experience of God from the experience of everyday life. It is a mother Church, because it accompanies its sons and daughters in the different processes of growth in faith.
It is a merciful Church that helps millions of people in need and cries out for justice in the face of the situation of poverty and violence in which we find ourselves. At the same time, it is a Church that reflects on and is analytical of the global reality of society and all that affects the person. We are a Church that has been impoverished along with the people, but from that same poverty and with full freedom we draw the strength to help those who need our help without making distinctions.

Do you see the faith rooted in the people?
-The Venezuelan Church, from the popular religiosity, manifests its love for holiness in the person of the saints. The patronal feasts are truly feasts for the joy of knowing that they share in the holiness of their patron saint. The various traditions are transformed into religious experiences animated by faith.
We have a synodal Church that has convoked all the people of God to deliberate and propose the necessary pastoral elements for evangelization through the Plenary Council of Venezuela and the national and diocesan Pastoral Assemblies. It is a Church that keeps alive the communion with the other Churches of the region and with the Holy Father Francis. It is a Church that does not close the channel of God's grace to anyone, but motivates the encounter with the Lord in every life experience.

What values do you consider vital in the recovery of the country and its institutions?
-Communion is a fundamental value. For the future, we must be united in faith. Sociological postulates are not enough, but above all, communion based on what we believe and in whom we believe. Communion generates fraternity, the profound sense of recognizing others as they are, with their differences, but always seeking common ground. A value that has been generated in depth in these times is solidarity. I speak from my country. In times of poverty and inequality, the value of solidarity flourishes. To be in solidarity is to go out of oneself to assume the other in his own needs, it is not only to give what I have, but mainly to give myself as a human being and Christian in the accompaniment of others.
of the town's historical journey.

Could you tell us about the Christian sense of the struggle for justice?
-He has not left our country, because he is where those who suffer are and he identifies with them: with the poor and those who suffer and put their trust in the Lord. The Cross is a saving sign for them. They cling to it because they know that after it comes the Resurrection, liberation.
We must foster respect for the dignity of the human person as a permanent value that nourishes the struggle for justice in the pursuit of freedom. The person and his dignity is the precious focus that God loves, so he invites every person to build his kingdom of peace, justice and love. But not in any way, but by raising the banner of freedom and justice.

How do you see Pope Francis' contribution projected over time?
-I believe that Pope Francis is opening a new stage in the life of the Church. With his life and his magisterium he urges us to go to the essential, avoiding distractions or superficialities that distract the Church from what is proper and permanent: to evangelize in the essential and from the essential: the person of Jesus Christ.
Pope Francis teaches us that what once seemed of little value - the peripheries - are now essential for the renewal of the Church and of cultures. He shows us this with his apostolic journeys: not to the center but to the peripheries, as if to draw strength from weakness. He insists on giving value to what seemed secondary, detaching himself from human securities that impede continuous processes, in order to go to the felt reality, which springs from the human heart and the heart of culture. It is to put the Church in a permanent state of mission, renewing structures and giving way to everything that privileges the merciful mission.

Leads to the essential...
-I believe that Pope Francis is doing what a Pope should do: encouraging, going to the essence of the message. Moreover, he is ridding the Church of certain evils that have hovered over her and, in a prophetic way, he is preparing her to enter into dialogue with a world that tries to ignore her, to disregard her. With parresia the Pope carries the weight of renewal, and does so looking to the future with hope. We see this in the convocation of the synod of young people, in the agreement with China and his ongoing outreach to minorities. Everything is done with joy, because the Christian cannot remain contemplating the wealth he has received, he must give it, he must give it to others.
to announce it, to be in permanent departure.

What was your experience during the recent visit ad limina?
-The visit ad limina was for us an extraordinary experience of communion and fraternity. In these years our episcopate has been renewed: many of them attended this event for the first time. The experience of these days has been a profound sign of unity as Church. We experienced this communion in a special way with the Holy Father Francis, who attended us with great serenity and inner peace. He is truly a man of God. The meeting of the entire episcopate with him became a sign of hope for our ministry: we felt that we are sustained by this firm rock in the Petrine ministry.

So, the Pope is keeping an eye on Venezuela?
-Pope Francis knows our reality very well. He has encouraged us to continue to attend to our poor people, to be with them, to be present wherever we are needed, to remain close to the people and to know how to resist the onslaught of injustice and evil that scourge our communities. It urges us to foster trust in God and the Blessed Virgin; to form and build a community of life in the solidity offered by closeness to our brothers and sisters; to pray and keep alive the flame of hope.
Visiting and praying in the four major basilicas allowed us to renew our service with a universal sense. The bishop serves humanity, without distinction or preference. Likewise, the visit to the congregations and dicasteries of the Holy See has allowed us to make known the efforts made by the Church in Venezuela to serve the people of God in the extension of the Kingdom of Heaven. In short, it was a kairosfull of joy and commitment.

What was the Pope's latest request to the Venezuelan bishops?
-The whole visit was carried out in a very simple way, but with great depth, especially in the reflections we held in each of the dicasteries. It has been a real impulse for the action of the Church in Venezuela in terms of evangelization, the sense of communion, the sense of service to charity, and the sense of formation.
The audience with the Holy Father lasted about two and a half hours. His last request, which filled us with great joy. He asked us to be close to the people: to always stay close to them, to never abandon the people of God in spite of the problems that may arise at the social, political, economic, cultural, religious or any other level.

The authorMarcos Pantin


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