When faith is not enough

How does a twitter-happy catholic priest manage to break attendance records for Monday morning mass during a long weekend? In a country in crisis, anything is possible.

It was not a normal scene for a Carnival Monday: a huge line of people queuing up outside the church in El Marqués, a middle class area in the east of Caracas. It looked like an election day when all the older people of the parish line up from early morning to vote.

Not even on Christmas day is the Church so full. The street was packed with cars too. Middle class people, most of them older, kept coming in cars off of the Cota Mil as other groups arrived in cabs. There is no public transportation around here, and the faces look familiar to the people of the area. “It looks like a postwar scene,” is how one of the many people there described it to me.

The Church, he soon found out, was donating medicines that day. The same day they organized a Mass of Healing, or Misa de Sanación. As a witness said: “Those who do not get medicines, we will begin to pray for.”

“It was the same people that vote in that area, mostly 50-something professional people, maybe retired, that never thought they’d have to line up in front of a church for charity,” said a parishioner.

“It wasn’t a queue of the poorest or neediest people. You get the impression that anyone that you know might have been there. With prices like they are today, it’s impossible for a retiree to buy medicine, in addition to the shortages.” 

For him, like many other Venezuelans, it’s all about the contrast: a line for medicines in a day where most Caraqueños would be out of town, at the beach, 4, 5, 10 years ago, your neighbors (or even your parents), waiting in line for a church donation after a whole life of hard work, “middle class” people waiting for some charity.

In charge of the Church and the donation drive is Pedro José Guerra, a catholic priest in El Marqués. He’s a young, devout believer in healing through the word of God and a fervent Twitter fan, where he regularly send blessings to his followers.

Guerra also has a TV show, “Guerra con Pierral”. The name of the show is a pun built out of presenters’ names, Father Guerra and Gustavo Pierral. “A perfect cocktail for an awesome time”, according with the website.

He sent out a call for people to come to the Mass of Healing, via Twitter. “This is a moment for deep prayer, for believing in the integral healing of the human being”, he told us. Seeing and suffering the crisis causes hits him, just like it does any other Venezuelan.

Chance allowed him to offer a little extra something during one of his healing masses. During one of his trips to Uruguay, he got in touch with Venezuelans living there and gathered together a support group. He was there to preach the word of God, but his suitcases were going back to Venezuela with more than faith inside.

On the 13 day trip, this “support group” managed to collect more than 143 different medicines: antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, sedatives, vitamins, allergy medicines, pain killers, laxatives, medicines for parkinson, antiparasitics, among others. This Catholic group even managed to tactically forget Church doctrine long enough to add a box of contraceptives. The medicines were bought by anyone willing to help and some laboratories added donations, too. The priest knows that even with these masses of healing, faith and prayer, it’s not enough for a country where basic medicines are missing.

So after two weeks in Uruguay Father Guerra packed two suitcases, full of medicines. He did not bring any receipts to declare at customs, “I was ok, because I have faith”… and maybe he was right, nobody in Uruguay’s airport or GNB in Maiquetía said anything. The trip was smooth.

The medicines were a bit of a grab bag, he tells us: he didn’t pick and choose. Another group of supporters in Caracas were in charge of opening the suitcases and organizing their contents. For the priest it was a “happy time”, just thinking about helping people in need.

After that, he put the information on Twitter and on a weekend, after mass, he delivered the medicines, no receipts needed.

He said some 1,500 people showed up, but he’s not sure how many people stayed after in line for hours to get the medicines. Within 4 hours, all the medicines was gone.

Father Guerra doesn’t have plans to repeat this event. It seems, talking to him, this was a one-off that came through due to good luck. Still, he’s received invitations to “spread the word” outside Venezuela. So maybe the faith it’ll take to bring another suitcase full of medicine is not completely gone.

Gaby J. Miller

Gaby is a Caraqueña steeped in 90's pop culture who likes to talk and write politics.