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    Photograph of unfinished red brick, flat roofed houses on a hillside.

    Fratelli tutti Meets the Street in Venezuela

    How does Pope Francis’s encyclical Fratelli tutti get put into practice in a country of political crisis and vast inequality?

    By Alfredo Infante, SJ

    February 22, 2022

    Available languages: Español

    • Ann Dayton

      An interesting article highlighting, as it does, the desperate plight of the people of Venezuela. The author also addresses the perennial problem of the differences between the liberal and the conservative wings of the church, in that the liberals, like Pope Francis, tend to want to follow the spirit, whilst the conservatives feels safer in being faithful to the doctrine. Thank God for Father Alfredo Infante for all that he is doing to try to help those suffering people.

    Plough’s Coretta Thomson talks with Alfredo Infante, SJ, a priest in Caracas, Venezuela, about how his parish is pulling together in the face of extreme crisis and how Pope Francis’s encyclical Fratelli tutti is shaping efforts to build solidarity and renew the church.

    Plough: To begin with, how is the situation on the ground in Venezuela?

    Alfredo Infante: In Venezuela we are on a path of pain and hope. On the one hand, we are immersed in a humanitarian emergency. Our country’s living situation has deteriorated dramatically in the last years; it is very difficult to survive. A lot of this has to do with a certain way of understanding political power: not as a tool to serve the people, but as the arbitrary exercise of authority that has destroyed the democratic institutions and also the living conditions of most of the citizens.

    Poverty rates are extremely high. In the last survey run by the Universidad Católica during the Covid lockdown, the national poverty rate was 94.5 percent. That is, most Venezuelans are living below the poverty line, which is different from being poor. There certainly are people who are victims of generational poverty, but there are also PhDs who don’t earn enough to eat well, let alone go on vacation or buy a book to read. A teacher, for example, earns four dollars a month and a healthcare worker might earn about the same. A professor can’t say to his kids, “Let’s go to the movies!” For us Venezuelans, baseball is very important, and one of my warmest childhood memories was going to the stadium with my dad. A family just can’t do that anymore.

    Photograph of unfinished red brick, flat roofed houses on a hillside

    The neighborhood of La Vega, Caracas, Venezuela Photographs by Sergio González. Used with permission.

    So if people can’t live off their salary, how do they eat?

    Remittances are one way of getting by, if you have family members living abroad. Another way is the black market. Venezuela is a country with many mineral resources and the government [is] very involved in illegal mining. Many dollars and goods circulate in this informal economy, generating income for some people, but lowering the quality of life for everyone else. Or they leave the country: almost one in five Venezuelans, half of them under thirty, have done so.

    What does this do to the country?

    There has been a drastic increase in domestic violence and depression. How do we address this? A saying we have here in our parish is “doing good does you good.” It is the best antidepressant around. You see, a lot of the depression we’re seeing is exogenic depression, where your situation affects you negatively and you get depressed. But work gives you dignity and purpose. I was once meeting with a group of teachers. One of them was leaving the school to start a business so she could feed her family. The other teachers, of course, were in the same situation, but weren’t thinking of quitting. I asked them why, and their response was, “If we stop teaching, we’d be even poorer. Another job might earn us more money, but teaching others, which is our vocation, enriches us as people.” I was very impressed.

    So we live in the midst of what the bishops’ conferences of Puebla and Medellín called structural sin. We are like the people of Israel, exiled on our native soil, on pilgrimage through pain and mourning. Mourning the loss of the country and life we once knew. Mourning the many people who have left the country. Mourning the violence that is killing so many people.

    But our eyes are fixed on the resurrection. There are many new social projects starting up, often under the umbrella of a church. In light of the level of destruction we are facing, these efforts sometimes seem small, but they give us hope. I’ve seen God moving hearts with the power of his Spirit, and people building each other up, like never in all my life. For me this [is] no less than miraculous. If the churches manage to promote brotherhood and sisterhood, teach participation and responsibility, strengthen the bonds between us, and turn from “I” to “we” in the light of faith – we will be prepared for the moment when, God willing, there is a change in the political structures. Then we will be equipped to be agents of positive transformation in our country.

    Could you tell about the social projects being started in your parish?

    The parish of San Alberto Hurtado in upper La Vega is not even ten years old. I have been here for six years, arriving just as the worst phase of the crisis broke. We still don’t have a church building. We decided to start by building the real church – that is, the church community – a process which will take time. So we have divided the parish geographically into base communities, and understand the parish to be a “community of communities.” Our missionary focus is human rights, that is, addressing the humanitarian crisis we are immersed in, because human life, which we hold to be sacred, is contingent on human rights.

    We have organized our parish in networks of five meal centers, in conjunction with other organizations, where we give one meal a day to about four hundred children. We also have meal centers in the five educational centers that our parish runs. So we are feeding about twelve hundred children on a regular basis. The schools give a basic education to about 2500 children and adolescents. One of the challenges is how to support the teachers who earn four dollars a month, so they don’t find work elsewhere. We have found small things that make a difference, like paying their transportation. Then we have a cultural and sports network that addresses the right to recreation and mental hygiene for about two hundred families, because in the face of our difficult situation, it’s important that families can relax and build good memories.

    Group of people singing and playing percussion instruments outdoors

    Members of the congregation sing in La Vega’s Misa de Aguinaldo, a special Christmastime Mass, December 2021

    We also support a music program for children and young people. Its underlying premise is that if a child falls in love with an instrument, he or she is unlikely to pick up a firearm, so it is an important way of combating violence, as well as giving the children a creative outlet. Additionally, the people in La Vega have little or no access to healthcare, and if they do see a doctor, they don’t have enough money to buy their medicine. So again, in conjunction with other organizations, we are addressing the healthcare needs of our people with a clinic and several community health workers. The problem is far too large to be solved by our small effort, but every little bit makes a difference. One of Jesus’ main missions was healing, so we see healthcare as one of the fundamental tasks of the church. Lastly, we have also organized to defend the right to electricity, running water, sanitation, and waste-removal services.

    All of these missions are a natural way of evangelizing. Faith and life are inseparable: faith must have real-life consequences. And this in turn attracts new people who feel God’s power in the middle of this chaotic situation and join with us in doing good. God will continue to give us strength to respond, to move forward, and to cultivate that hope we all need so badly.

    Would you be able to share about the work you were doing to mediate between the police and gangs?

    In the first half of this year our neighborhood saw extreme violence, practically a war, between delinquent gangs and the police. There were many deaths and human-rights violations; for example, at least twenty-three people died in one police raid in January. Most of the population was in the crossfire and our first task was to accompany the people so they could process the conflict. Later we also spoke up about the human rights violations that occurred on the part of the police and also sent messages to the gangs telling them to respect the civilians. Members of my congregation are also working to make peace in violent areas in other parts of the country, dialoguing between the perpetrators and communities to reestablish a peaceful coexistence, trying to find paths to rebuild our country from the inside.

    As you may imagine, La Vega became top news at that time, but it was all negative press. One channel, Analítica, interviewed me to find out what was really happening in La Vega. I said, “Everyone else is talking about the violence and if you interview me, I’m going to talk about the good side. I’m not saying the violence doesn’t exist, but there’s more to La Vega.” This is very important to me because here in Venezuela, people think that the slums are full of criminals, and there is discrimination against everyone who lives there. So we need to say: look, we’re good people who want to contribute to society.

    I’m wondering how you got into this work.

    I was born in Barranquilla, Colombia. When I was two, my family emigrated to Venezuela because the situation in Colombia was very hard. We moved to a low-income neighborhood in Maracaibo, a city in western Venezuela near the Colombian border. Our new neighborhood was very poor: there was no school or access to healthcare. So my mother, the best-educated woman around, got a group of other women together and started informal classes where they taught reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion. She was a nurse, so she tended to healthcare needs as well. My father worked as a baker. He was a good dad to us and also to the other kids in our neighborhood because most of them were children of single mothers. So from a young age I was raised with the example of service to others as a natural outgrowth of faith.

    Later, a Jesuit priest named Acacio Belandria came to my neighborhood. It was just after the conference of Medellín, when many priests and nuns went out into the slums to start faith-based social programs and base communities. So I grew up in this church environment. Later came the conference of Puebla, when I was a young person, so I was able to participate in implementing these new changes along with Padre Acacio and the Medical Mission Sisters who were also working there. We had many talks and meetings. It was a very beautiful moment in the church, full of faith and hope.

    I also studied in a Jesuit college, where I became an elementary school teacher and found my religious vocation. I entered the Jesuit order, was ordained in 1996, and went to Angola for three years to work with refugees. I then returned to Venezuela and eventually ended up here in the parish of San Alberto Hurtado. I’ve also been working in the Jesuit Centro Gumilla as the director of our magazine and, more recently, as the human rights coordinator, as well as my position as parish priest.

    Could you talk a bit about the encyclical Fratelli tutti, which touches on many themes we have mentioned already?

    Fratelli tutti’s point of departure is the awesome truth that Jesus is, first of all, a son and brother. Therefore, the son of God makes us all brothers and sisters to each other, which is why we can speak of universal fraternity. So the focus is brotherhood through the son, Jesus, and this is transcendental: it puts us on a path, a pilgrimage, as the people of God who draw closer as brothers and sisters as we walk the way of discipleship. This places us in a different ecclesial dimension: the church is no longer an institution, but rather a people journeying together in Christ’s name.

    This vision calls us to discern our mission constantly. What does it mean to be a fraternal church today, here in upper La Vega? What kind of relationships do we need to establish? For example, if people are hungry and we want to love our neighbor as ourselves, we should start a ministry to address that need. When there are serious health challenges, well, Jesus is the Great Physician, and if we are followers of Jesus, we should start a ministry for that. To accomplish all this, we need to feed ourselves spiritually each day through encounters with God’s word, prayer, and the Eucharist.

    Priest Alfredo Infante blesses a young girl holding a candle

    Alfredo Infante blesses a young girl in La Vega’s Misa de Aguinaldo, December 2021

    In my opinion, Fratelli tutti is more a spirituality than a doctrine. The difference between the two is that with a spirituality, as Jesus said to Nicodemus, the Spirit blows where it will. If we open ourselves to the Spirit, well … all we can be sure of is that if we let ourselves be guided by it we will get to a friendly port. We will have to discern the route as we go. Doctrine, on the other hand, is one sure way and there is a formula for exactly how to get there. So this new direction means that there are no longer formulas for how to be a church. Because of this, it is vitally important that we are all responsible in our faith in Jesus, so that the church we are building is the result of our relationship to him. Then missionaries will go out as a response to our immediate situation, yet faithful to Jesus’ way.

    This brings us to the fact that in the first Christian church communities there were no formulas, but rather a diversity of organizational models that had in common a deep sense of brotherhood, discernment, and love of Jesus. James’s community in Jerusalem was very different from the Pauline ones. I always love to think of the first Jewish community which was expecting the second coming any day and held all things in common. But they consumed everything in common too. The Lord’s coming was delayed and they got poor. That is why Paul learned from this experience and spoke a discerning word: “He who does not work, does not eat.” And the Pauline communities ended up supporting the Jerusalem congregation. So this community in plurality is how the Spirit works and is what Jesus wants. I think this is the way our new path will take my church. But this demands of us believers a greater responsibility, because it is much easier to follow a formula than to discern the Spirit.

    So then synodality, the concept of journeying together that your church is currently considering, would be the hands and feet of Fratelli tutti?

    Yes, absolutely. But I’m going to back up here. I believe the Catholic Church under Francis has returned to the inspiration of Vatican II that I experienced growing up: making a church that is less hierarchical, more focused on reading God’s word, less bureaucratic, more missional and Christocentric, not just focused on the mass and sacraments but full of disciples – people who hear the word of God, walk with Jesus, and share the Good News with others.

    Everything that Francis has proposed is interconnected. First came Evangelii gaudium, which showed us how Jesus, the joyful good news, is inclusive and wants to give life to all of humanity, especially the poorest of the poor. Then came the Year of Mercy: the joy of the gospel is only possible in relation to the merciful father who does not want any of his children to be lost, who cares for and agonizes over them, who doesn’t want them to live in a world of injustice, inequality, and exclusion. But creation also cries out and Laudato si’ is the cry of creation, revealed to us by the merciful father. Then comes Fratelli tutti, the spiritual context wherein Evangelii gaudium and Laudato si’ might be realized. And finally, synodality is the way we should organize ourselves as a church to accomplish all of this. It means changing our way of relating to each other, so we can really be brothers and sisters, not just as a lofty spiritual ideal but in practice, in the way we work and worship together as followers of our brother Jesus.

    Interview conducted on October 30, 2021. Translated by Coretta Thomson.

    Contributed By

    Alfredo Infante, SJ, is a priest in Caracas, Venezuela.

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