By Tom Tracy Catholic News Service
WESTON, Fla. (CNS) -- Hundreds -- including many Venezuelans living in the United States -- came to this Fort Lauderdale suburb May 1 to greet the cardinal from Caracas, Venezuela, and to see relics of Blessed José Gregorio Hernández, known affectionately as the "doctor of the poor," whom Pope Francis beatified in 2021.
Cardinal Baltazar Porras of Mérida celebrated Sunday Mass for parishioners at St. Katharine Drexel Catholic Church west of Fort Lauderdale. He brought with him the relics of Blessed José Gregorio that were placed for veneration at the front of the church.
Blessed José Gregorio, born in 1864, studied medicine in Europe and served as a medical doctor in Caracas, where he often would visit sick patients without asking for payment.
His generosity to the Venezuelans produced the moniker "the doctor of the poor."
But in 1919, after picking up medicine for a patient at a pharmacy, Blessed José Gregorio was hit by a car and died.
Since then, Venezuelans remain devoted to the pious doctor and have attributed healings to his intercession. He is the first Venezuelan layperson to be beatified.
Years of strife and political upheaval in Venezuela have resulted in the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans and the rapid growth of exile communities in Florida and elsewhere in the U.S. and Latin America.
According to background information distributed by the cardinal's staff, more than a million Venezuelans have sought refuge outside their homeland, with 5 million settling in other countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.
The 2020 U.S. census counted 500,000 Venezuelans living in the U.S., with the greatest numbers living in Florida (more than 273,000), Texas (75,000), New York and Georgia (both with around 23,000) and California (20,000).
Cardinal Porras' visit to the U.S. began April 23 in New York; he traveled to Washington and Boston before arriving in South Florida.
"When we announced that Cardinal Baltazar was coming, people were excited, because he is a man who speaks about rights and freedoms -- he was always a man who takes care of his people," said Father Yonhatan Londoño, parochial vicar at St. Katharine Drexel Catholic Church and a native of Colombia. "He is a shepherd who wanted to come and greet all his people."
"One of his requests is that he wants to say hi to everybody and to meet and bless everybody with the relics," Father Londoño told The Florida Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Miami. "There is a lot of emotional happiness here today."
People in South Florida have not given up hope on a turnaround of the economic and political turmoil back in Venezuela, the priest added.
"They come every day to pray the rosary for the freedom of Venezuela, and they do a lot of things at the church, collecting stuff to send to Venezuela to help the people there. Both communities -- the people in Venezuela and the exile community -- are just one. They support each other, they help each other, they love each other," Father Londoño said.
Carlota Blanco -- a fundraiser for the church and for charitable projects in Venezuela -- was among the entourage traveling with the cardinal and relics.
Blanco is also helping the church promote and investigate the sainthood cause of Blessed José Gregorio.
Pope Francis signed a decree approving a miracle attributed to him last June, paving the way for his beatification.
The miracle in question was the healing of Yaxury Solórzano Ortega, a 10-year-old girl who was shot in the head by thieves attempting to rob her father, according to the Venezuelan bishops' conference.
During surgery, the young girl's mother prayed to Blessed José Gregorio. She said she felt a hand on her shoulder and heard a voice that said, "Stay calm, everything will be fine."
Doctors initially said Solórzano would remain disabled -- including losing her ability to speak and see -- if she survived her surgery.
Nevertheless, she fully recovered 20 days after her surgery.
A medical commission of the Vatican Congregation for Saints' Causes confirmed in January 2020 that there was no medical explanation for her healing.
"We are here to analyze a possible new miracle and traveling with a message of peace and service to people," said Blanco, pointing out that the possible miracle associated with Blessed José Gregorio is under investigation in Miami.
After the Mass in Weston, Cardinal Porras traveled an hour south for a visit with the Catholic community at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Doral, not far from the Miami airport. That parish is considered the largest spiritual home of Venezuelan migrants in Florida.
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Tracy writes for the Florida Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Miami.