How wretched must conditions be for masses of people to seek refuge in Colombia, only recently emerged from a decades-long civil war? Yet that is what is happening as Venezuela moves from petro-socialism to starvation-socialism, administered by the extra-constitutional dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro, successor to Hugo Chávez.

More than a million Venezuelans have fled their homeland, not only for fundamental liberties and civil rights, but also for basic food and access to medicine. Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope and someone whose heart is sensitive to the plight of refugees, has asked that the Church take concrete steps to deal with the crisis.

On Monday, the call of Pope Francis to “welcome, protect, promote and integrate” migrants was answered by the launch of Bridges of Solidarity, an “integrated pastoral plan to assist Venezuelan migrants in South America”.

The episcopal conferences of Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina have developed joint efforts to deal with the economic disintegration of Venezuela. The joint plan aims to provide services to Venezuelan refugees, including welcome centres and shelters, assistance in housing and employment, access to education and social services, legal advocacy, pastoral care and the promotion of acceptance in host populations.

The whole effort is being assisted by a singular department in the Roman Curia, the migrant and refugees section of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development. Migrants and refugees used to have their own separate dicastery – known as Migrants and Itinerant People – a pontifical council with its own cardinal president. It was abolished by Pope Francis, and assumed into the larger dicastery to which it now belongs.

But it struck everyone as counter-intuitive that this Holy Father would give immigrants and refugees a bureaucratic downgrade, so Francis fixed that by appointing himself head of the section dealing with migrants and refugees, in effect inserting himself both above and below Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of Integral Human Development, on the Vatican org chart.

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