Over the past four decades, many priests from the archdiocese have served in various parishes and capacities in the Venezuela Church. Having recently visited the mission during its 40th anniversary celebration it was obvious the people were delighted to welcome back Frs. Frank Fried, Tim Norris, Larry Hubbard and Denny Dempsey.
Bishop Piche, how does that speak to you of the impact our priests have had on the Venezuela parishioners they have served over the years?
It was very clear to me that the people of the mission parishes greatly loved the priests who served there, and it was heartwarming to see their genuine affection at every new reunion. That tells me that overall our missionaries have been having a positive impact on the people of San Felix and Puerto Ordaz. On the other hand, it seems to me that the very positive outcome is not a factor of the priests, religious, and other missionaries who came from Minnesota, but rather comes from the “chemistry,” the coming-together of a deeply religious people with those who were sent to them. What I saw in the eyes and faces of the Venezuelans, and most of all in their actions, was an incredible openness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and a hunger for the hope that his Gospel brings to all people.
Since 1983, priests from our diocese have been pastoring the parish of Jesuchristo Resucitado (JCR) in San Felix. The large parish consists of 11 barrios (neighborhoods) – approximately 65,000 people with an unemployment rate of over 70%.
How do you see the mission providing hope to the people of Jesuchristo Resucitado?
One clear message of hope comes through in the vital activity of the Catholics at Jesucristo Resucitado. They must have hope to be able to do all the things they do: to worship with such energy and joy, to reach out to those poorer than themselves in the ministry of San Vincent de Paul and Legion of Mary, the frequent offering of meals to the hungry, and many other ways. I was particularly encouraged by the active involvement in the parish of so many children and young adults. To me this says that Jesus Christ is present there — for he had a special attraction for the young. Many good seeds are being planted. People can see that, when we act with Christ and under the power of the Holy Spirit, amazing things can happen; it’s not all up to us. And when we act together, our influence goes far beyond the walls of the church. This empowers the young, and old, to see that they are not imprisoned either by their poverty or by other outside forces in the world. My sense is that our Venezuelan sisters and brothers know intuitively, perhaps better than some of us do, that however limited our resources here on earth, we can rejoice because, as Jesus said, “It has pleased your Father to give you the kingdom”.
Since 2002, Fr. Greg Schaffer, pastor of JCR, began to organize young people from the parish to visit our archdiocese to create awareness of the mission by sharing their music, culture and parish life. Many of these young adults have since taken on responsibilities within the parish community at JCR as ministers of marriage preparation, faith formation, and the St. Vincent De Paul organization which performs corporal works of mercy for those in need.
How were you impressed with their commitment to serve in these ministries?
Having now had the experience of traveling to their country, I am even more impressed with the youth who came to Minnesota — they came not knowing the language or the culture, they gracefully endured the inconveniences and uncertainties of traveling in a strange country, and yet they were fully engaged in the ministry of introducing others to the mission and establishing new bonds of friendship. It was no great surprise to me that many of these same youth are intimately involved in more than one aspect of ministry within the parish of Jesuscristo Resucitado. Their generosity is remarkable, and their joy contagious. Even though we were able to communicate only through our interpreter (usually Padre Greg) or through gestures, I felt close to the youth there, and I greatly admire their willingness to be co-workers in the vineyard of Jesus Christ.
What vision do you share for the future of the mission at JCR parish?
My vision and my hope is that the wonderful work of the mission will continue, and that as the community of Jesucristo Resucitado continues to mature in grace, faith, and love, others will be drawn more deeply into a relationship with Christ. As more and more people become engaged in loving praise of God and loving service of neighbor, the barrios may become transformed to a “garden” of peace and security, true joy, family life, academic and employment opportunity, a clean environment, sufficient material support for decent and dignified living, and other signs of the kingdom yet to come, the kingdom of the Jesus Christ the Risen One.