Thursday, August 11, 2011

Fr. Bruno Renaud: Priest of the Venezuelan Barrios

In this country, one gets the impression that the entire Catholic Church in Venezuela is conservative and perpetually at war with Hugo Chavez. This article about Fr. Bruno Renaud, a priest at
Sagrado Corazón de Jesús parish in Petare in the Archdiocese of Caracas, and founder of the Escuela de Formación Popular in that city, tells a different story...

by Jean-Baptiste Mouttet (English translation by Rebel Girl)

Bruno Renaud has been serving for 45 years in the poor neighborhoods of Caracas, which are known for their violence. His life is dedicated to the "liberation" of the poor.

In the street that winds between the ocher houses of the barrio, the Venezuelan equivalent of favelas, the Belgian priest Bruno Renaud says mass. In this working class neighborhood of Petare, a city bordering the capital, Caracas, about forty people listen attentively and laugh heartily at every joke tossed out by this man of the cloth. "He's the only one who dares to come here. He has done a lot for the neighborhood," Esperanza Valdes, 78 and sitting on a plastic chair, says with a smile.

Bruno Renaud, who studied theology and ancient history at the Catholic University of Louvain, came to settle in Venezuela nearly 45 years ago. He chose to live in Petare, one of the most dangerous cities in the country, a country itself known for its extreme violence (according to official figures there were 48 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010, as against 1.4 in France in 2008 according to UNDP).

This tall 71-year old man with short white hair and sparkling blue eyes rubs shoulders with the dangers of the city every day. Recently, it's the story of a teenager slashed by a razor blade in the middle of street during daytime that touched him.

Books and health care

While heads appear at the windows to watch the service, Esperanza continues: "Thanks to him, we have a health center and library." From the 70s to the early 90s, the priest set up a score of libraries in neighborhoods that did not have easy access to cultural centers then. Today, some are self-managed while others have been incorporated into the national library network. The health center allows residents to consult doctors and has been operating for over 30 years.

Bruno Renaud explains humorously how he was able to build this center. An old lady, "not very talkative", to his amazement, immediately agreed to sell her house so that the priest could carry out his project. "Everything is violent in these neighborhoods, the barrios, hospitality is violent, generosity is violent, and love is violent," he said.

In the neighborhoods where he serves, it's hard for him to walk more than five feet without someone coming to shake hands or engage in conversation. "Bruno is loved and respected here. He's a friend," Humberto Segovia, a truck driver, asserts. "With my big nose and my very white skin, I don't go unnoticed. But the people have welcomed me as one of them," Renaud says, laughing.

He regrets that the Catholic Church isn't more present. "There's no fellowship with the poor. We are facing an assistantialist church that occasionally makes donations without permanently investing itself on the side of the poor."

Bruno Renaud, because of his life devoted to the poor, might make one think of Mother Teresa's involvement. The comparison would not please him at all. He isn't trying to help the people in Petare but to "liberate" them. Close to liberation theology -- a theological school of thought born in Latin America that aims to "liberate" the poor from their condition, he is more similar to Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador (capital of El Salvador), who opposed the military government and American interference.

Frank positions

Bruno Renaud defines himself as a "Christian activist". Every Thursday, Ultimas Noticias, one of the few newspapers to open its pages to different opinions, publishes his columns with frank positions. In an often humorous, sometimes sarcastic and readily ironic tone, he tweaks the Pope, makes allusions to the conservatism of the Venezuelan Bishops Conference. He criticizes the Catholic hierarchy of his adopted country for "always being reactive" and for using "the pulpit and the lectern for politics."

He opposes the systematic anti-Chavez attitude of the Church. "Every day I see changes in the neighborhoods. The people have risen up to study, they have a right to health care, unemployment has decreased and there is attention to all segments of the population." And he highlights the problems the socialist government has failed to solve: "Insecurity, extreme centralization, disorganized reforms..."

This freedom of tone doesn't seem to be to everyone's taste. A professor of the history of ideas and the early church at the Theological Institute for Religious and the Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas, he also taught in a seminary in Caracas, before being removed from his position in 1972. Reinstated, he was fired again in 2005, but the reasons were't revealed to him.

His followers don't seem aware of these positions. "I didn't immediately make the connection between the columnist and the priest in front of my house," says Nestor Segovia, an avowed atheist and member of the community council (local community decision-making body). They know that the priest is a source of support. It's enough to visit the septuagenarian in his apartment. There is constant back and forth, residents who have come looking for someone to listen, for advice or just to share a moment with their friend.


Articles by Bruno Renaud in Ultimas Noticias

Articles by Bruno Renaud at

Entrevista al Padre Bruno Renaud -- "Las misiones deberían ser reajustadas a la realidad cambiante", Últimas Noticias, 12/21/2008

Venezuela: des prêtres au pays de Chavez, Par Jean-Baptiste Mouttet, Témoignage Chrétien, 5/5/2011

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