Hospice latest of Father Schaffer’s efforts for Venezuelan mission

| June 6, 2019 | 0 Comments

Father Greg Schaffer talks May 17 about the hardships faced by people in Venezuela. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Father Greg Schaffer sees people’s desperation and hunger on the streets of San Felix, Venezuela.

“What’s hard to see is your own parishioners — elderly (and) children — going to the trash in the streets to find something to eat,” said Father Schaffer, longtime pastor of Jesucristo Resucitado in San Felix, the mission parish of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Father Schaffer, who began serving the archdiocesan mission in 1997, sees the hunger hitting the elderly particularly hard. He said many are dying from malnutrition and limited access to healthcare. He can address part of their need in the near future with the purchase of a building for a hospice, which he plans to open next year. It has been funded by private donors and special collections at parishes.

“There’s a great many elderly adults that have been abandoned by their families,” said Father Schaffer, speaking to The Catholic Spirit May 17 during a trip to Minnesota.

He sees the elderly’s plight as a local symptom of an economic plague effecting the country more intensely in the past five months than in recent years.

Gladys Brito, Jesucristo Resucitado’s accountant who also spoke to The Catholic Spirit May 17, said most of the elderly in the parish suffer from malnutrition. She added that her sister sees it firsthand when she visits the “barrios,” or neighborhoods, in the parish.

Venezuela’s economy plummeted in the past five years under President Nicolas Maduro. Oil, the country’s primary industry, took a hit in 2014 with the global oil crisis. Maduro began printing money excessively, which increased inflation.

The economy worsened this year with a political battle between Maduro and Juan Guaido, who also claims the presidency. The U.S. set up sanctions against Maduro’s government designed to reduce Venezuela’s oil exports. Meanwhile, inflation continues to grow.

While economic challenges make it difficult to meet Venezuelans’ physical needs, many continue to find spiritual nourishment at Jesucristo Resucitado, which is packed at each weekend Mass. Father Schaffer said faith is one thing to which people can still cling.

“I just tell people over and over, we can’t use the crisis that we’re living in as an excuse to not live as Jesus taught,” Father Schaffer said.

Father Schaffer doesn’t see much hope for improvement under the current government and recognizes people are desperate for a change. He also doesn’t let the violence and crime in Venezuela dissuade him from continuing the mission.

Father Schaffer makes security a priority. He put up rebar on the rectory windows and roof 15 years ago. He has a dog that barks if there are people near the property.

“We kind of live in a cage, but that’s what everybody does,” he said.

Other security measures include keeping car windows closed, discretion with cell phones and not staying out late, he said. Other priests serving the mission have run into danger.

In 2016 , former parochial vicar Father James Peterson, now pastor of Immaculate Conception in Columbia Heights, was robbed at gunpoint. Father Dennis Dempsey, who served in Venezuela from 1994 to 1999, was robbed at gunpoint once, too.

Father Dempsey, the pastor of St. Dominic in Northfield, plans to return to serve the archdiocesan mission in July. That will give the mission a second priest for the first time since Father Peterson was reassigned last year. Father Schaffer said Father Dempsey will focus on pastoral ministry, particularly serving the people in the barrios surrounding the parish. Father Schaffer invited Father Dempsey to Venezuela in January to see how the conditions have changed.

“He’s coming in knowing that,” Father Schaffer said about safety, which, he added, comes down to using common sense.

For Father Schaffer, that includes being careful about what he preaches and discusses. He doesn’t talk about politics in order to protect the parish.

In early May, members of the Venezuelan National Guard loyal to Maduro launched tear gas at churchgoers attending Mass at a Catholic church in San Cristobal, in the Diocese of San Cristobal.

The bishop of that diocese, Bishop Mario del Valle Moronta Rodriguez, protested the attack. Bishop Moronta is known for speaking out against the government, Father Schaffer said.

Despite Venezuela’s challenges, Father Schaffer remains hopeful that the archdiocesan mission will continue to engage Venezuelan Catholics as the mission concludes its first half-century of service next year.

He keeps the mission moving forward with efforts such as the hospice. The building, which cost $90,000, will house 10 elderly people. Care will include medication, meals and prayer. Projected expenses for renovating and operating the hospice are in flux because of inflation, Father Schaffer said.

The hospice will use the parish’s soup kitchen, which feeds 63 people daily Monday through Friday. Father Schaffer said the soup kitchen’s service can’t expand much further until he finds more regular, steady donors. The archdiocese supports the mission through private donations, and the Catholic Services Appeal Foundation also provides annual support.

“There’s so many more needs that we have,” Father Schaffer said. “If we’re going to expand the number of people that we’re feeding, we have to do so in a way that we’re sure that we can feed them for the long haul, not just feed them for two weeks or a month and all of a sudden, we have to say, ‘Well, we can’t continue to help you.’”


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