The man who changed the Vatican’s mind on Venezuela

Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino (Getty)

Twenty-five years after Soviet totalitarianism was thrown on the ash heap of history, with the dissolution of the evil empire itself, the world is witnessing in Venezuela the reprise of a familiar Cold War drama – the courageous cardinal defying a corrupt communist regime.

Two months ago, I wrote in these pages about the 20th-century lions of the east, those indomitable pastors who faced persecution and stood strong, writing with their witness one of the proudest chapters in the history of the Church. Their names form a veritable litany: Cardinal Lubomyr Husar of Kyiv, recently deceased; Archbishop Teofilius Matulionis, recently beatified in Lithuania; Cardinals Adam Sapieha of Kraków, Stefan Wyszyński of Warsaw, Kazimierz Świątek of Minsk, Aloysius Stepinac of Zagreb (already beatified), Josyf Slipyj of Lviv, Josef Beran of Prague, Alexandru Todea of Romania, Jozef Mindszenty of Hungary. They provided the inspiration and model for the most influential of them all, Karol Wojtyła of Kraków and Rome.

As the lethal tyranny of Nicolás Maduro – thuggish successor to the petro-communist Hugo Chávez – smothers the ability of Venezuelans to enjoy basic human rights and nutrition, Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, Archbishop of Caracas since 2005, has emerged as a formidable centre of unity for Venezuelan civil society. After defending the Church against the assaults of the Chávez regime before the latter’s death in 2013, Urosa – who turns 75 later this month – has in recent years increasingly spoken the truth about Venezuela’s descent to starvation socialism.

“The [necessary] solution is that the government solves the problems it has caused, and does not insist on wanting to impose a socialist, communist, Marxist, totalitarian and militaristic system as a regime of government,” said Urosa in June while in Rome, calling again for fresh elections, which presumably would lead to the end of the Maduro regime.

Cardinal Urosa travelled to Rome in June, along with the other leaders of the Venezuelan episcopal conference, to get the Holy See’s diplomacy on the same page with Venezuela’s bishops. In that sense, Urosa and his brother bishops were also experiencing a Cold War era phenomenon, that of the Holy See taking a softer line on communist tyranny than the local pastors.

It was called Ostpolitik then – before John Paul II shifted course – and it was bitterly resented by the lions who had borne the heat of the battle against communist tyrants. Now it is the especially friendly treatment Pope Francis gives to Latin American leftists, including Maduro’s two closest allies, Cuba’s Raúl Castro and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, the latter of which famously presented the Holy Father with a sacrilegious hammer-and-sickle crucifix in 2015.

In any case, while the Cold War bishops could not travel, Urosa is still a free man, and flew to Rome to ensure that Pope Francis did not permanently lose precious credibility by his reluctance to publicly condemn Maduro. The visit was a success and Holy See diplomacy has been belatedly forthright in condemning Maduro’s attempt to re-write the constitution to his advantage.

Regarding the recent eviction of the opposition-dominated National Assembly from its own building, Cardinal Urosa was blunt: “This is a measure astonishing for its violence and arbitrariness. It violates the will of the people who sovereignly elected the National Assembly in the December 2015 elections.”

Cardinal Urosa is free, but government thugs have harassed him. During Holy Week, his Chrism Mass was interrupted by Maduro’s forces and Urosa was jostled. In July, he was trapped inside a church with hundreds of the faithful as government forces attempted to shut down an opposition-organised plebiscite. While the Holy See was silent on the first outrage, it condemned the second, a recognition that Cardinal Urosa has become a target of the government, which recognises his importance as the crisis deepens.

As President Donald Trump mused about military options in Venezuela, Urosa answered deftly as his country’s senior bishop, pointing out that what Trump considers is something the Castro brothers have already been doing: “I am sure all the Venezuelan bishops reject all foreign military interference, such as the Cuban one present for some time in Venezuela.”

Last week, there were celebrations for the centenary of the birth of Blessed Oscar Romero, martyr of San Salvador at the hands of government death squads. Cardinal Urosa, please God, will not be similarly targeted by the murderous forces of Maduro, who have already killed more than 100 protestors in recent months. His courage though is similarly admirable, and a point of pride and source of hope for an embattled people.

Alas, the world is not yet rid of the scourge of communism. And, blessedly, nor is it lacking heroic resisters, champions of the faith.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of

This article first appeared in the August 18 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here