A man considered by millions of Venezuelans to be the “doctor of the poor” is to be beatified, a step towards sainthood in the Catholic Church.
Jose Gregorio Hernandez will be beatified on Friday during a ceremony in Venezuela’s capital. The ceremony will be the culmination of 72 years of effort by Venezuela’s Catholics.
Mr Hernandez was a doctor, university professor and researcher before his death in 1919.
Initial plans called for a ceremony at a stadium, but the coronavirus pandemic has forced organisers to change venues, limit attendance to fewer than 300 people — mostly priests and nuns — and leave most Venezuelans to watch the event on television.
The pared-down 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 secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, had been scheduled to lead Mr Hernandez’s beatification in person. But the former ambassador of the Holy See in Venezuela cancelled his trip to the South American nation, citing the pandemic.
Mr Hernandez died at the age of 54 when he was hit by one of the few cars in Venezuela in the early 20th century. His ascent towards sainthood has been plagued with obstacles, but in the hearts of many Venezuelans, he already is a saint.
The beatification “does not change things at all… for me he has always been a saint”, said Odalis Josefina Vargas, who like millions of other Venezuelans venerates the doctor famed for giving free treatment and medicine to the poor.
Ms Vargas has an image of the doctor on an altar in her home that is always illuminated with green lightbulbs, except during the blackouts that plague the country.
When Pope John Paul II visited Venezuela in February 1996, he received a petition signed by five million people — almost one in four Venezuelans — asking that he declare Mr Hernandez a saint and make his worship official.
Mr Hernandez, born on October 26 1864, was convinced that science was one of the main ways to get the country out of misery. He founded two research institutions and several classes at the Central University of Venezuela, the oldest and largest in the country.
“He believed that medicine was a priesthood of human pain,” Luis Razetti, a prominent Venezuelan doctor and friend of Mr Hernandez, once said.
Mr Hernandez, who never married, graduated as a doctor in Caracas in 1888. He travelled to Europe to study and then to become a Catholic monk, but his fragile health was affected by Italy’s cold and humid weather. He returned to Venezuela to recover and stayed permanently.
On June 29 1919 he was killed while crossing a street shortly after picking up some medicine at a pharmacy to take to a very poor old woman. An estimated 20,000 people participated in his funeral procession, about a quarter of the population of Caracas at the time.
In 1986, the Vatican declared Mr Hernandez “venerable”, which means that he led an exemplary Christian life. But to achieve sanctity, teams of doctors, theologians and cardinals must approve two miracles attributed to him.
The case that prompted beatification was that of Yaxury Solorzano, a girl who was seriously injured after being shot in the head and managed to recover completely in a miracle attributed to Mr Hernandez, the Archdiocese of Caracas reported then.
Pope Francis signed the decree for the beatification last June.
The beatification comes at a time when many Venezuelans struggle to feed their families as a result, among other factors, of soaring 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 from the United Nations World Food Programme.
The worship of Mr Hernandez has spread to other South American nations, as well as Spain and Portugal.