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from issue no. 03 - 2006

Frank and respectful dialogue between us and the government

The archbishop of Caracas, the new cardinal Jorge Liberato Urosa Savino, speaks about his country and of the relationship between the Venezuelan Catholic Church and President Hugo Chávez

Interview with cardinal Jorge Liberato Urosa Savino by Gianni Cardinale

Cardinal Jorge Liberato Urosa Savino presents his elderly mother, doña Ligia, 
to Benedict XVI during the audience for new cardinals and their families, 
27 March 2006

Cardinal Jorge Liberato Urosa Savino presents his elderly mother, doña Ligia, to Benedict XVI during the audience for new cardinals and their families, 27 March 2006

«Venezuela is exultant about its cardinal Jorge Liberato Urosa Savino, archbishop of Caracas, accompanied also by his elderly mother. Both in Valencia and now in the capital city, he has followed through a great many pastoral initiatives for the good of his beloved country». Those were the affectionate words with which Benedict XVI greeted one of the new cardinals received in audience together with their families on Monday 27 March, three days after placing the biretta on the first fifteen cardinals created by him. The media stressed the delicacy shown by the Pontiff in leaving aside for a moment the official text of his speech in order to address directly the mother of the new cardinal of Caracas, doña Ligia Savino de Urosa, with a smile and the words: «I greet you cordially». «A delicate gesture that, obviously, gave much pleasure to my dear mother!», the new cardinal Urosa Savino confirmed in an interview granted to 30Days in the Domus romana sacerdotalis on Via Traspontina. We met him after he had received in audience Father Federico Corrubolo, parish priest of the parish-sanctuary of Santa Maria ai Monti, the presbyterial title with which the Latin American cardinal has been invested.
Urosa Savino, who will be 64 next August, studied at the Gregorian University, where he gained a doctorate in Dogmatic Theology, and has been a priest since 1967. Appointed auxiliary of Caracas in 1982, in 1990 he was promoted archbishop of Valencia en Venezuela. On 19 September last year he was appointed new archbishop of Caracas, a See made vacant by the death of the Salesian cardinal Ignacio Antonio Velasco García in July 2003.

Your Eminence, you are the only Latin American cardinal created in the first Consistory of Benedict XVI. How did you react to the privilege?
JORGE LIBERATO UROSA SAVINO: My nomination as cardinal is a great honor for me, for the Church in Caracas and for all the Venezuelan Church. It’s a demonstration of affection from the Pope for all of us. In the last forty years Caracas has always had a cardinal and the Pope kindly decided to continue that tradition. But I believe that my nomination is important also for the whole Church in Latin America, that is preparing its fifth General Assembly, to be held next year in Brazil and in which the Pope will participate. That will be an important moment of reflection for relaunching the evangelizing spirit of our Church at a particularly delicate moment for our continent.
How was your nomination received in your country?
UROSA SAVINO: With great joy among believers, clergy and religious. And also throughout the whole episcopate. The Church in Venezuela, thank God, is very united, and works and prays always to strengthen that unity.
Was your nomination particularly celebrated by the media also?
UROSA SAVINO: With the media in Valencia, where I was archbishop for fifteen years, and in Caracas I’ve always had good relations. And that is something positive.
What instead was the reaction of the political world?
UROSA SAVINO: I have had positive welcome from all sectors of the political and social world. And that intimidates me a little. It means that expectations of me are high, perhaps too high. As if as cardinal I had a magic wand for solving problems. Something, obviously, that is not the case. The strength of a cardinal is his prayer and that of all his faithful.
Have you also received congratulations from President Hugo Chávez?
UROSA SAVINO: The president called me the day the Pope announced my nomination and he called me again here in Rome after the Consistory. I’ve received many calls of congratulation from high officials in the government and also in the opposition.
Yet in recent years there has been no lack of moments of strong friction between the leadership of the Venezuelan Church and President Chávez, with accusations being exchanged on the borderline of insult…
SAVINO UROSA: You have to remember that the current political process in Venezuela is unheard of. It’s a matter, going by what the agents of this political evolution have to say, of a revolutionary process. And this has involved change in many sectors of political and social life. For the Church there have been a few difficulties in relating to this new situation, to these changes. So there have been misunderstandings with political power and verbal clashes, at times in very heated tones.
Benedict XVI with Cardinal Urosa Savino during the Consistory of 24 March 2006

Benedict XVI with Cardinal Urosa Savino during the Consistory of 24 March 2006

What, according to you, were the reasons for the misunderstandings?
UROSA SAVINO: For many years the bishops of Venezuela have taken an independent stance from the political power and one of critical autonomy. A stance that is still the present one. Let me make quite clear that ours is meant to be a position, when necessary, of positive criticism, with the only purpose of favoring the common good and not our privileges or those of anybody else. But, as we know, governments, all governments, aren’t fond of criticism. It happened with the preceding governments. It’s happened with Chávez’s government.
Lately, however, the impression is that the tension between State and Church in Venezuela has slackened a little…
UROSA SAVINO: Fortunately in these last months there has been some relaxation, a quest for a better relationship, a desire to listen to the different positions. And that has been something really positive. We bishops have the task of proclaiming the Gospel of freedom, of peace and of justice. And we can’t remain silent when we see that things are not going well. But, I repeat, we have no party interest and we have no parti pris against anybody. We ask the government to accept our positions expressed by our Bishops’ Conference not as a challenge to the powers that be, but as a help to the good of all the Venezuelan people.
According to you what are the positive aspects of the current Venezuelan government?
UROSA SAVINO: What the government has done for the poor, for education and for health care is without doubt positive. That is a fact.
What instead is more problematic?
UROSA SAVINO: The fact that in the last elections for the National Assembly only Oficialist parliamentarians were elected, those from the party in government, can only be considered alarming. It means that wide sectors of the Venezuelan people have great distrust of the electoral system. This is a problematic and delicate point. That is why the Bishops’ Conference launched an appeal to all the political forces, and especially to Oficialists, so that everybody will be able to have trust in the electoral processes. It’s a very important point: everybody must be reassured that the next elections will be truly democratic. Starting from the presidential election that is to be held next 3 December. But the elections are not the only problem…
That is?
UROSA SAVINO: Another question unresolved for the moment consists of the sometimes radical methods used against those who don’t go along with the government line. The Church holds that the government must have a more forbearing and reciprocal attitude towards them. It’s another point on which we’re very insistent.
The Catholic Church is particularly concerned by the spread of anti-life and anti-family legislative systems that is taking place in many areas of the world, and in Latin America also. What is the situation in Venezuela in that regard?
UROSA SAVINO: The Vene­zuelan people is a people that respects life, from its conception to its natural end. Ours is a people that historically has always been opposed to the iniquitous forces that want to impose from outside anti-life policies. However in recent years the attempts to bring in pro-abortion legislation have intensified. But, thank God, the majority of the people and the members of the National Assembly remain against it.
What is the position of President Chávez on these questions?
UROSA SAVINO: The president has always professed himself a defender of life and has always declared himself contrary to introducing pro-abortion laws. That is a very positive fact.
Cardinal Urosa Savino during his re-entry to Caracas with the Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez 30 March 2006

Cardinal Urosa Savino during his re-entry to Caracas with the Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez 30 March 2006

You have met the president. What impression did he make on you?
UROSA SAVINO: I’ve seen him twice. We had a meeting after the announcement of my nomination as archbishop of Caracas. We spoke about many topics and it was a very frank and very respectful discussion. There was another very long discussion lately when the president received the new leadership of the Bishops’ Conference, of which I am vice-president. In that case also it was a frank and civil discussion. We discussed multiple issues. At times we agreed, at times not, but always in an atmosphere of great respect. We bishops, nevertheless, don’t want the government to discuss only with us, but we want to open up discussion with all the social and political realities of the country.
Your Eminence, are you afraid of a Castroist drift in the Venezuelan government?
UROSA SAVINO: I believe it would be mistake in the Venezuelan revolutionary process to imitate other revolutionary processes, such as the Cuban one, that don’t seem to have had a very positive result.
You were nominated archbishop of Caracas after more than three years that the See had been vacant. An anomaly due, according to observers, also to the fact that the 1964 Convention between the Holy See and Venezuela states that before proceeding to the nomination of new bishops the Holy See must communicate «the name of the candidate to the president of the Republic to check whether the latter has objections of a general political character to raise», and that «objections of this nature existing, the Holy See shall indicate the name of another candidate». Do you think the moment has come in which this peculiar privilege of political power be abolished in Venezuela also?
UROSA SAVINO: What concerns the Church is evangelization and the promotion of justice and peace. The Concordat is an important and delicate problem, but it isn’t one of our priorities for the moment. The future will see.
A last question. If the barometer seems to have shifted towards fair weather between the Holy See and the Venezuelan government, the same can’t be said for that between Caracas and Washington. As a Venezuelan citizen and man of the Church how do you judge the ongoing clash between the Chávez presidency and the administration of George W. Bush?
UROSA SAVINO: It would be better if both sides had a more constructive attitude, because Caracas and Washington have many interests in common. Tough challenge isn’t the best path for international relations, nor for the good of the Venezuelan and American people.

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