“I was thinking, ‘They’re going to kill us.’”

Living in socialist Venezuela, Juan Pablo Galviz was targeted and threatened by the government. By the grace of God, he and his family escaped to America.

Juan Pablo Galviz lied wide awake on his bed in the early hours of the morning, listening to every sound on the nearby street. He couldn’t remember how many days he’d gone without sleep since the day he thought he and his family wouldn’t escape the hands of the colectivos – armed paramilitary groups in support of socialist President Nicolás Maduro – in Venezuela.

His pantry was empty, his body sore from the day’s work, and he begged God to deliver him and his family.

“When I graduated as a journalist, I never imagined I would have to live through something like this,” Galviz recalled, “that Venezuela would go through something like this.”

Just a few months before reaching Florida in search of asylum, Juan Pablo had received death threats and visits from the colectivos to his own house because of his work as a host of a popular radio show, in which he highlighted the harsh conditions and painful experiences of many people caused by the failing economy or the cruel treatment received from the government.

Juan Pablo Galviz grew up in socialist Venezuela. After hosting a radio show in which he criticized the government, he and his family became targets.

“In 2014, Venezuela began its ‘Way of the Cross.’ Protests and street closings started happening [fueled by the economic crisis and gasoline shortages]; government officials and other groups paid by the government began intimidating protestors, even if they were protesting peacefully,” Galviz said. “Protestors began barricading the streets to protect themselves from the colectivos. [The armed groups] had ‘sapos’ [whistleblowers; literally, ‘toads’] on every street, so they showed up at every protest and would browbeat people at gun point using the most vulgar language you can imagine.

“We couldn’t leave our houses for about four months because the government imposed a curfew; in my city, San Cristobal, the curfew started at 1 p.m. The period of the barricades in San Cristobal was among the most disastrous of the country. The [armed groups] burned many things, and there were terrible deaths, including those of many student protestors…

“A big group of students decided to camp out by one of the main streets of the city in peaceful protest, and at night the governor would send the military with their tanks to intimidate the students and the people living in the surrounding neighborhood. They would break windows, break into homes, chase students who ran away to hide…

“All of this is to describe what we started experiencing in 2014, because it was one of the most tragic moments in Venezuelan history, without knowing what was to follow.”

After the country reopened, Galviz, who also has a graduate degree in education and was teaching at the local university, began a video campaign with some of his students to promote good values in society, “because the city was left in ruins.”

In addition, he started his Saturday news radio show that would later be the reason for his persecution.

“We featured many relevant stories on the show. For example, people didn’t know that many mothers, in order to feed their children, would travel all the way to the Colombian border, donate their hair and receive a few Colombian pesos. With the devaluation of the Venezuelan bolivar, that was a lot of money, and they could at least buy food for three days,” he said.

Galviz highlighted these types of stories for about three years, “causing people in the regime to grow in discontent.”

2017 saw a resurgence of protests, closures, barricades and conflicts, “but this time the colectivos were a lot more violent,” he said.

The opposition organized the “Gran Plantón”, or “great sit-in,” in which, at a certain date and time, people would interrupt their activities and protest wherever they were.

Galviz was in his home at the time, and many of his neighbors decided to protest outside. But then the colectivos arrived.

“They already knew where I lived, so they took advantage of the situation,” he recalled. “I went inside to warn my wife and my mother, who also lived with us. Two minutes later [the colectivos] were at the door yelling, threatening us and breaking all sorts of things. At that moment, I was thinking, ‘They’re going to kill us.’ A thousand things crossed my mind that day.”

After the incident, he couldn’t leave his house in peace: the colectivos continued to keep a close eye on his neighborhood. The situation forced him to take his family in secret and move in with his brother in another part of the city.

A younger Galviz with two of his radio co-hosts.

These incidents left many scars in the Galviz family. His wife and his mother both suffered from nervous breakdowns, and he himself had to seek out help from a psychologist.

“I tried not to show my weakness, but on the inside, I was deeply broken,” he said.

He was forced to change the content of his radio show out of fear and resigned a few months later.

“I left the show because I couldn’t sleep anymore,” he said. “It was either my work or my family.”

Galviz was forced to find any means to provide for his family and buy his mother’s medicine.

“I started collecting recyclables and taking them all the way to the Colombian border, where they gave you just a few pesos, but enough to buy flour or rice,” he recalled. “I would fill up and carry a big suitcase, and it was so heavy that at night my hands were torn and in a lot of pain.”

But the effects of the situation would bring more suffering to the family.

“My wife and I found out that we were expecting, and we saw it as a sign of hope. But the anxiety and stress of the situation caused her to have a miscarriage,” he said. “We were heartbroken.”

Amid the pain, he was able to return to his position at the university, giving virtual classes, but he knew he couldn’t keep it up for much longer: things were only getting worse.

He received word from his neighbors that the colectivos frequently visited his old home, yelling: “We’re going to kill you! You’re going to die!” and all kinds of obscenities.

“The priests who condemned [the injustices and evils] of the regime receive death threats. I’ve known of many. Father Luis Toro, for example, a very well-known priest in all of Latin America for being a great defender of the faith, was my parish priest. At one Mass, he spoke very strongly against the actions of the government, and he had to leave the country because of it. He’s never returned since then.”

Juan Pablo Galviz

A few months later, thanks to the help of his father- and son-in-law, who had managed to move to the U.S., Galviz, his wife and his mother were able to fly to Miami seeking asylum.

“We were scared that they wouldn’t let us in, but I thank God they did. That night at the hotel, before going to sleep, the sensation was unbelievable – we finally felt free,” he said.

Since then, for the past two years the Galviz family has undergone a process of healing, of trying to understand why they had to leave their own beloved country “like criminals,” of getting used to the idea that they may not be able to return any time soon.

“We didn’t want to leave. We left everything: family, friends, house, cars,” he said. “When I realized I wouldn’t be able to return any time soon, and officially resigned from my post at the university, I got very sick.”

Galviz assured that not only journalists were persecuted by the totalitarian government, but anyone who spoke out against it, including regular people of faith, as well as priests and bishops.

“The priests who condemned [the injustices and evils] of the regime receive death threats,” he said. “I’ve known of many. Father Luis Toro, for example, a very well-known priest in all of Latin America for being a great defender of the faith, was my parish priest. At one Mass, he spoke very strongly against the actions of the government, and he had to leave the country because of it. He’s never returned since then.”

Amid the hardships, Galviz is very grateful for the help and community his family has encountered at St. Pius X Parish in Aurora. Ever since he was granted a working permit, he’s been working several jobs he’d never done before, but he will soon return to the communications world as a host on a Spanish Denver radio station.

“It’s hard to leave everything and come do things you’ve never done before,” he concluded. “But since I’ve been here, I feel that I’ve grown and matured. I feel so much calmer. I’m very grateful.”

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.