Cardinal Jorge Urosa: Courageous Champion of Human Rights for the Venezuelan People

COMMENTARY: The 79-year-old archbishop emeritus of Caracas died Sept. 23 due to complications from COVID-19.

Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino of Venezuela, shown during a March 2006 visit to the Vatican, died Sept. 23 at the age of 79.
Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino of Venezuela, shown during a March 2006 visit to the Vatican, died Sept. 23 at the age of 79. (photo: ALBERTO PIZZOLI / AFP via Getty Images)

The death of Cardinal Jorge Liberato Urosa Savino, archbishop emeritus of Caracas, brought a premature end to the life of a courageous pastor, who battled the depredations of Venezuela’s regime and who stood forthrightly for Catholic doctrine.

Cardinal Urosa, 79, served as archbishop of Caracas from 2005 to 2018, having previously been archbishop of Valencia since 1990. He was admitted to hospital in August with COVID-19 and the disease proceeded aggressively. He died on Sept. 23. His funeral was held in a largely empty cathedral on Sept. 25 due to pandemic measures.

Upon his death, the Venezuelan bishops released a letter which Cardinal Urosa wrote from hospital, knowing that his life was in danger.

Expressing his love for the Venezuelan people, Cardinal Urosa wrote of his “absolute dedication to their freedom, to their institutions, to the defense of the rights of the people in the face of the abuses committed by the national authorities.”

Cardinal Urosa wrote that his ministry was animated always by “an immense patriotic love” for all Venezuelans “in line with the national constitution which establishes inalienable rights that cannot be violated by any government.”

“In that regard, I have always acted, not out of hatred, not out of resentment, but in defense of freedom, justice and the rights of the Venezuelan people,” the cardinal wrote. “I hope that Venezuela will come out of this negative situation.”

That “negative situation” marked the entirety of Cardinal Urosa’s service in Caracas, under the regime of Hugo Chavez and then, after the Venezuelan president’s death in 2013, that of Nicolas Maduro. The petro-communism of the Chavez-Maduro regime, one of the most wicked on the planet, has impoverished a country that should be oil-rich. Millions of Venezuelans have sought refuge in neighboring Colombia and farther afield. Those left behind are deprived of necessary food and basic goods, and some have resorted to scavenging to survive.

During the Maduro years, it fell to Cardinal Urosa to lead the Venezuela bishops in solidarity with the people against the human rights abuses of the regime. Preserving their unity, the cardinal had to walk a fine line, complicated by the general unwillingness of Pope Francis to criticize leftist regimes.

Indeed, Maduro would blast Cardinal Urosa and his brother bishops for being too critical, telling them that they should follow the more compliant line taken by the Holy Father and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, secretary of state and former nuncio in Venezuela.

Cardinal Parolin would speak of Vatican policy regarding Venezuela as “positive neutrality.” Cardinal Urosa was not neutral about the pauperizing of his country and the assault on human rights. He bluntly called for Maduro to resign and his regime to be dismantled.

Cardinal Urosa’s private frustration with the “positive neutrality” of Pope Francis boiled over in public in June 2017 when he led a delegation of Venezuelan bishops to Rome, arriving unannounced, uninvited and unimpressed. They demanded to be heard. It made a difference and, finally, in August 2017, the Vatican took a clear position with the Venezuela people and the Venezuelan bishops against the regime. It was late and ineffective by that stage, but Cardinal Urosa’s courage managed to preserve some integrity for the Holy See’s failed Venezuelan policy.

It is possible that senior officials in Rome were annoyed at Cardinal Urosa’s supposed effrontery; he was retired the next year despite being in good health.

By then, Cardinal Urosa had already earned himself raised eyebrows in Rome. During the family synods of 2014 and 2015, when some Vatican officials were aggressively manipulating the process to arrive at what would become Amoris Laetitia, Cardinal Urosa was one of the 13 cardinals who signed the letter to Pope Francis asking for a more open and transparent process. That effort, led by Cardinal George Pell, created such fury in the Holy Father’s inner circle that the prelates who signed were given the cold shoulder. Cardinal Pell’s authority as financial czar was severely reduced just months later in 2016. It may be that Cardinal Urosa’s cries on behalf of Venezuela fell on deaf ears in Rome because of his defense of Catholic teaching at the 2015 synod.

By the time of the 2019 Amazonian Synod, Cardinal Urosa was retired and not invited to participate. He raised his voice ahead of the synod in a series of thoughtful commentaries published in the National Catholic Register.

 “The synod must clearly announce that the fundamental mission of the Church is to proclaim Jesus Christ as our Savior,” he would write as the synod was drawing to a close. He was worried that this obvious point was being neglected.

Cardinal Urosa was more familiar than many Latin American prelates with the Church in North America. He studied theology in the 1960s on a scholarship to St. Augustine’s Seminary in Toronto, and maintained friendships from that time throughout his life. 

He continued his visits north into his retirement; I hosted him in Canada in March 2019. By that time, the silver-haired septuagenarian was a kindly avuncular figure, but the fire would return to his voice when he called for liberty and justice in Venezuela, in the name of the Church obligated to preach the Gospel.

“What interests us above all is that the Venezuelan people love, have faith and serve Jesus Christ who is the way, the truth and the life, the only one in whom we find salvation and forgiveness of sins,” he wrote in his final letter, a coda to the life of one of the great Latin American prelates of his generation.