On Thursday, Pope Francis will meet in Rome with the Presidential Council of the Venezuelan Bishops’ Conference (CEV). At the private audience, the Venezuelan bishops will inform the Pope “in detail” about the ongoing crisis. It’s not the first time Pope Francis meets with Venezuelan church leaders to discuss the crisis, but it is the first time the Vatican officially publicizes such an audience, and the first time that the whole CEV Presidential Council will meet with the Pope to openly talk about the current debacle.

The Vatican has been criticized for its lenient approach to the government, as seen in the dialogue it brokered in 2016, which was widely considered as a time-wasting tactic by the government. Venezuelan opposition figures have expressed intense frustration towards Pope Francis, saying he should be more assertive and less accommodating with the Venezuelan government.

Sandro Magister, vaticanist for Rome’s L’Espresso, says there’s an “abyss” between the Venezuelan bishops and the Pope regarding the crisis. “The bishops make common cause with the people who protest the dictatorship, and they are admired and listened to as true authorities,” he says, “while [Pope Francis] is judged to be a kind of Pontius Pilate, inexcusably close to Maduro and chavismo, and bafflingly reticent to speak out for the victims of repression and on the aggressions that the Church itself has faced.”

It’s not the first time Pope Francis meets with Venezuelan church leaders to discuss the crisis, but it is the first time the Vatican officially publicizes such an audience…

But Luis Badilla Morales, journalist and director of Il Sismografo, disagrees, insisting that tomorrow’s audience will demonstrate the unity between the Pope and the CEV. “There’s never been a controversy or disagreement between Francis and the Venezuelan bishops, even if the tone of the words could lead to assumptions about alleged divergences. The Pope has always looked at the Venezuelan situation from a general perspective by focusing on the search for consensual solutions,” Badilla Morales recently wrote.

In fact, the Venezuelan bishops have been increasingly vocal regime critics for years. Since 2016, the Archbishop of Barquisimeto, Mons. Antonio López Castillo, has made the yearly Divina Pastora homily into a set-piece for political dissent. Former rector of the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello and Jesuit Father Luis Ugalde, has repeatedly referred to the government as a dictatorship in his public addresses, calling on the military to act. The CEV has openly supported the street protests, and, most recently, Mons. Diego Padrón, the Archbishop of Cumaná who heads of the Bishops’ Conference, described the call for a Constituent Assembly as a threat to democratic order.

The Pope can expect some frank and unvarnished advice then.

What to Expect?

According to Gerard O’Connell, Vatican correspondent for America: The Jesuit Review Magazine, the Venezuelan Bishops are also expected to meet with the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin; the Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Paul Gallagher; and the substitute of the Secretariat of State, Archbishop Angelo Becciu. There could also be meetings with the leadership of Caritas Internationalis — the catholic charity— as well as with father Arturo Sosa, the leader of the Jesuits, himself a Venezuelan.

The CEV has openly supported the street protests, and, most recently, Mons. Diego Padrón… described the call for a Constituent Assembly as a threat to democratic order.

Initially, media reports suggested it was the Pope who had called the meeting. However, Greg Burke, Director of Vatican Press Office, clarified in statement that “the encounter was requested by the Episcopal Conference itself, which desires to speak to the Pope about the situation in Venezuela.”

Mons. Diego Padrón will lead the delegation. He will be accompanied by vice-presidents Mons. José Luis Azuaje (Archbishop of Barinas) and Mons. Mario Moronta (Archbishop of San Cristóbal) as well as General Secretary Mons. Víctor Hugo Basabe (Bishop of San Felipe). Cardinals Jorge Urosa Savino and Baltazar Porras will also be present.

The encounter with Pope Francis sends a strong signal about Church unity. It shows there’s a direct line of communication between the Vatican and the Venezuelan bishops. Expect the meeting to affirm the four conditions already set by the Pope in order to reassume the dialogue: opening a humanitarian channel, agreeing an elections calendar, restoring the National Assembly and releasing political prisoners.

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