Sunday, January 15, 2006 — Today is the big day for Venezuela! The 150th anniversary of their patroness “La Divina Pastora.” I am sitting in our mobile office waiting for my next live shot in which I will try to explain in words the magnitude of this crowd and what this day means for Venezuelans, and for their future. Everyone had told me how big the procession would be, but now that I see it, I realize that my imagination sold me short. I can’t confirm that the number is two million as the organizers had promised, but I certainly could not deny it. The truck I am sitting in, for example, while well off the beaten path, is being rocked back and forth as people patiently, but persistently try to find space to squeeze by and continue along the nine kilometers of the procession route. For some reason, despite the pressure of the masses, I feel quite safe.
The day is hot and muggy, but these good people don’t complain. As I interview people in the street, they tell me that they are happy to express their love and gratitude to God for his blessings and protection over these 150 years. The tradition they celebrate today says that the city of Barquisimeto was saved from an epidemic of cholera after a priest brought into the downtown area a statue of the child Jesus in the arms of his mother, Mary. He prayed that God would save the city, and in return, he offered his own life as a ransom. The city was miraculously saved and so was he. They have repeated the procession of the statue every year since.
This may sound like just a pious story, old wives tales, but the belief that God truly cares and intervenes in world history and in the lives of individuals is at the very heart of the Catholic faith that 97% of Venezuelans profess. And divine intervention is what they will continue to hope for when they wake up tomorrow, many to abject poverty and general political and social unrest.
I’ll get back to the description of the events in just a minute, but let me tell you about a dinner party that we attended last night that gives a bit of perspective to what today’s event will mean for tomorrow and beyond. The guests of honor, besides the FOX News camera crew (headed by Melanie Schuman and photographer, Alfredo De Lara), were the bishops of Venezuela — all 70 of them. As they sat and ate, we discreetly invited a select few over to a makeshift studio where we interviewed them about their take on the present situation of Venezuelan society and the role of the Church in the defense of human rights.
They spoke to me on camera with surprising candor. They underlined their responsibility to speak out against the government when they see fraud and injustice. To this, President Chavez tells them to stay out of politics, and their response is just as clear; for the good of the people the truth must be told. We who live in a real democracy may find inappropriate, at first glance, this type of intervention in politics by religious leaders, but in these parts — where human rights are in grave peril — it becomes evident that everyone must speak out.
So what’s the principle we can learn from this example? Here’s how I would put it: Religious leaders should always stay out of partisan politics and, at the same time, they should always have the courage to speak out against injustice, even when politicians are involved.
So I got a bit sidetracked…tomorrow I’ll post more about the procession itself, including a politically driven walk-out by politicians and the military guard in the middle of the concluding mass, and as soon as I can, we’ll post a few pictures of our adventures trying to bring this story to you.
Thanks for your notes and questions. Keep them coming.
Write to Father Jonathan Morris at firstname.lastname@example.org.