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Venezuela’s beloved ‘Doctor of the Poor’ will be beatified

A man considered by millions of Venezuelans to be the “doctor of the poor” is about to be beatified, a step towards holiness

CARACAS, Venezuela – With the austerity of a monk, a vocation to seek the good of others and a brilliant scientific mind, José Gregorio Hernández won the affection of those who called him “the doctor of the poor”. He became a religious icon after his death in 1919, and since then, millions of Venezuelans have fervently asked for him to be worshiped universally.

Now, the doctor, scientist, university professor and pioneer of bacteriology will be beatified, a step towards holiness in the Roman Catholic Church. The beatification ceremony on Friday will culminate in 72 years of efforts by Venezuelan Catholics.

Initial plans called for a stadium ceremony, but the coronavirus pandemic forced organizers to relocate, limit attendance to less than 300 people – mostly priests and nuns – and let the rest of Venezuelans watch the event on television. The reduced event will take place in a small chapel at a Catholic school on the edge of a mountainous national park north of Caracas.

The Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, had been appointed to lead Hernández’s beatification personally. But the former Holy See ambassador to Venezuela on Wednesday canceled his trip to the South American nation, citing the pandemic.

Hernández died at age 54 when he was hit by one of the few cars in Venezuela in the early 20th century. His rise to sanctity was plagued by obstacles, but in the hearts of many Venezuelans he is already a saint.

Beatification “does not change anything … for me he was always a saint,” said Odalis Josefina Vargas, who like millions of other Venezuelans venerates the doctor who has gained fame for giving free treatment and medicine to the poor.

Vargas has the image of the doctor on the altar of his house, always lit by green lamps, except during the blackouts that plague the country.

When Pope John Paul II visited Venezuela in February 1996, he received a petition signed by 5 million people – almost one in four Venezuelans – asking him to declare Hernández a saint and make his worship official.

Hernández, born on October 26, 1864, was convinced that science was one of the main ways to lift the country out of misery. He founded two research institutions and several classes at the Central University of Venezuela, the largest and oldest in the country.

“He believed that medicine was a priesthood of human pain,” Luis Razetti, a prominent Venezuelan doctor and friend of Hernández, once said.

Hernández, who never married, graduated as a doctor in Caracas in 1888. He traveled to Europe to study and then become a Catholic monk, but his fragile health did not allow him to withstand Italy’s cold and humid climate. He returned to Venezuela to recover and stayed permanently.

On June 29, 1919, he was killed while crossing a street, shortly after taking some medicine from a pharmacy to take to a very poor lady. It is estimated that 20,000 people participated in his funeral procession, about a quarter of the population of Caracas at the time.

In 1986, the Vatican declared Hernández “venerable”, which means that he led an exemplary Christian life. But to achieve holiness, teams of doctors, theologians and cardinals must approve two miracles attributed to him.

The case that motivated the beatification was that of the girl Yaxury Solorzano, who was seriously injured after being shot in the head and managed to fully recover in a miracle attributed to Hernández, the Archdiocese of Caracas then informed.

Pope Francis signed the beatification decree last June.

John Paul II, now also a saint, visited Venezuela twice. But relations between Venezuelan Catholic leaders and the country’s socialist governments were strained, especially during the term of the late President Hugo Chávez. During his 1999-2013 government, he accused Catholic leaders of turning their backs on the poor and allying themselves with the “oligarchy”.

Under Francis’ mandate as pope, relations have improved dramatically. Some observers said Parolin’s planned trip to Venezuela could help the Vatican lay the groundwork for new negotiations after a series of failed dialogues in the past five years with the aim of reaching an agreement between the government and the opposition.

Beatification comes at a time when many Venezuelans struggle to feed their families as a result, among other factors, of rising food prices amid hyperinflation. A total of 9.3 million people – about a third of the population – suffer from moderate or severe food insecurity, according to a 2020 report by the United Nations World Food Program.

The cult of Hernández spread to Spain and Portugal and other South American nations.

“It is an impressive thing. With the exodus of Venezuelans and the return to their places of origin of the people who lived in our country, their knowledge and devotion have spread ”, said Cardinal Baltazar Porra.

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