a day marked by strong words, Pope Benedict XVI met today with
Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, to whom he expressed his concerns
over the Church’s sometimes tenuous situation in that country as well
as a number of the leader’s proposed national reforms.
In a statement released today by the Holy See Press Office, director Joaquin Navarro-Valls said that during the course of the meeting, "the president illustrated to the Pope the projects of social change taking place in his country,” while “Benedict XVI then drew to the president's attention certain themes of particular concern to him.”
The Catholic Church in Venezuela, led by Cardinal Rosalio Jose Castillo Lara, has been highly critical of Chavez’s presidency. Last year, he told the Italian press that the president was dividing the country and “since he came to power he has sowed hatred that is bearing evil results.”
During today’s meeting, the Pope stressed “the freedom of the Holy See to appoint bishops, and expressed the hope that the Catholic University of ‘Santa Rosa de Lima’ may always maintain its Catholic identity.”
The statement added that "The Holy Father also expressed his concern over an education reform project in which there would seem to be no provision for teaching religion. He further asked that public health programs uphold the fundamental principle of protecting life from its very beginnings. He also underlined the importance of the independence of Catholic media.”
In response, the Vatican said that President Chavez “gave assurances of his concern for the Holy Father's requests and expressed his commitment to overcome all forms of tension in full respect for everyone's rights.”
At the end of the meeting, Pope Benedict gave a personal letter to the president which summarized what the Vatican called, “his pastoral concerns for the good of the country."