Photo: EFE, retrieved

Venezuelans aren’t the most religious of Latin Americans, but the Catholic church has always been the largest and most important in the nation pretty much since forever. 71% of Venezuelans identify themselves as Catholic and, besides 24 dioceses, nine archdioceses and four vicariates, the church runs numerous charities, schools — including over 170 dedicated to poor children — and four universities.

But, despite its size and resources, it isn’t immune to the crisis we’re currently going through.

Crime is the most prevalent issue. Through the years, many places of worship that used to be open and welcoming have been forced to remain locked, allowing visitors only for services. Just to show you how large robberies have grown in scope, a few days ago it was reported that a 500 kilogram bell was stolen from a church in Cumaná.

Despite its size and resources, it isn’t immune to the crisis we’re currently going through

Religious services have been forced to adapt, particularly those at odd hours. Easter Vigil, one of the most important liturgical events of Christianity, usually celebrated with a midnight mass, gets pushed as early as 6 pm in some places.

Those attending at regular hours also find themselves threatened. It’s not strange seeing churchgoers in the most dangerous neighborhoods carrying car plugs or batteries, fearing they might get robbed while attending mass. Religious processions, once traversing entire communities, have become a symbolic walk around the sidewalk.

Traditional manifestations, such as Los Diablos Danzantes in the central states, or the different shrines dedicated to Marian apparitions across Venezuela, see the number of visitors dwindle as people become less willing to venture to unsafe places within the country.

And it’s not just about crime. Shortages and inflation have also taken a toll. In the poorest parishes, they have been forced to rescind of the communion, and some even import sacramental bread. Also continuing community-level social programs with the shortage of banknotes, gets harder and the maintenance of shrines is drastically affected, with several churches part of our historical patrimony left to decay.

Police presence has gotten common, particularly during the holidays, with this year’s Holy Week including the presence of the military around the main Catholic places of worship in Caracas. This is also a reminder of the complicated relationship between church and State in Venezuela.

In the poorest parishes, they have been forced to rescind of the communion, and some even import sacramental bread

In the last few years, their relationship has been marked by a set of compromises and affinities that over the years has had moments of tension. The country’s Conference of Bishops generally criticizes the government and supports the opposition, while the Curia remains neutral trying to mediate between factions.

But as the crisis deepens, a pragmatic position is impossible to sustain. Last year, a group of government followers broke into the Santa Teresa Basílica as worshippers were preparing for the Holy Wednesday procession, assaulting Cardinal Jorge Urosa Sabino, Archbishop of Caracas, for his comments on political prisoners during homily. Earlier this year, during a procession of the Divina Pastora, people started to chant “freedom, freedom” against the National Guard, which had a platform to watch the festivities, forcing the military to leave.

These past few weeks tensions have grown between President Maduro and the Conference of Bishops, with the president asking bishops to leave politics out of the pulpit during Holy Week, regarding political comments as “disrespectful” (the Conference responded with a press release).

In times of crisis like these we live in, religion has played a comforting role for many. It may not be entirely logical, and religious conflict has caused much grief in the world.  Yet, in countries like China and the former Soviet Union, powerful regimes couldn’t eradicate the need for belief. It’s interesting to see how Karl Marx called religion “the opium of the people,” also defining it as “the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions.”

And though this was an “illusory happiness” for Marx, for those who believe, who feel for a moment the grace and mystery of a heavenly kingdom in a ritual repeated for centuries, it’s the closest taste of salvation at hand.

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