How Bishop Ruiz built the church in Southern Mexico long before Pope Francis spoke of the peripheries
By Jan-Albert Hootsen August 2017 America Magazine
For a place where history was made less than a quarter of a century ago, the room in the offices of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas is an unassuming one. Tucked away next to a dark hallway and a quiet courtyard, it features just a coffee table, a few chairs and a sofa. “The furniture here was bought specifically for the negotiations in 1994,” Gonzalo Ituarte Verduzco, a Dominican friar, says. He smiles fondly. “This is where the diocesan negotiators spoke with representatives of the government and the Zapatistas, trying to broker a peace agreement.” The humble space is dominated by a large portrait of Samuel Ruiz García—between 1959 and 1999 the bishop of a diocese that spans the highlands of Mexico’s southernmost Chiapas State and the man who changed Chiapas and the diocese forever.
On Jan. 1, 1994, hundreds of masked and armed soldiers of the indigenous Zapatista Army of National Liberation (E.Z.L.N.), named after the famed agrarian revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, marched into San Cristóbal. It was supposed to be a festive day for Mexico’s political and business elites and President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the day Mexico entered the North American Free Trade Agreement. Instead, it became the day indigenous Mexicans rose up in arms after centuries of extreme poverty and marginalization.
As Mexican armed forces moved in and conflict began, the warring parties looked for a mediator. They knew there was only one man with the moral authority to broker a peace deal: Samuel Ruiz García. With the bishop heading negotiations, a cease-fire was reached 12 days later, ultimately resulting in the San Andrés peace agreement of 1996.
“The government knew there was no one more trustworthy than Don Samuel, and the Zapatistas could not confide in anyone else,” recalls Father Ituarte, a close friend and collaborator of Bishop Ruiz. “It was a convergence that started the peace process.”
A Pastor’s Legacy
Outside Mexico, Samuel Ruiz is mostly known for his role in the 1994 conflict. Here in Chiapas, however, his legacy is far broader and deeper. Six years after his death, he remains a towering figure in the political and spiritual imagination of Mexico’s poorest state.
During his 40 years as bishop of San Cristóbal, he transformed the diocese into Latin America’s first real “autochthonous church,” true to the principles of the Second Vatican Council and the Second General Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Bishops at Medellín, Colombia, in 1968, two events in contemporary church history that influenced him deeply. He preached “evangelization by the poor,” instructed his priests to study local indigenous languages and trained hundreds of catechists and deacons.
In his practice, being an autochthonous church meant incorporating indigenous traditions in the church and welcoming the participation of indigenous people in a region whose inhabitants had never been treated as equals by European colonizers and their descendants. Bishop Ruiz ordained hundreds of indigenous deacons and translated the Bible into Tzeltal, one of the many local Mayan dialects.
Beyond church reform, Bishop Ruiz became one of Chiapas’s and Mexico’s principal advocates of social justice and equality. Championing indigenous rights and the struggle against poverty and racism, indigenous chiapanecos came to lovingly nickname him “Tatic,” which means “father” in Tzeltal, a local dialect. Others called him “El Caminante,” “the walker,” because of his constant travels through Chiapas. After he was ordained, he famously visited every community of the diocese riding a mule.
Bishop Ruiz’s social and religious struggle in Chiapas placed him at odds with figures of authority in Mexican politics. Mexico’s federal government accused him of espousing Marxism and fomenting the revolutionary thought that ultimately led to the E.Z.L.N.’s uprising. Landowners and the rich elites of Chiapas accused him of Communist sympathies and confronted him, sometimes violently.
He was also often at odds with members of the Mexican church hierarchy, who acted as defenders of the political and cultural status quo, and with the Vatican, which did not approve of his ordinations of indigenous deacons. In 1993, he was asked to step down. After he wrote a pastoral letter defending his reforms and his pastoral approach, Mexican bishops rallied behind him, and he would stay on for another six years.
Bishop Ruiz died in 2011 in Querétaro, near Mexico City, after leaving the Chiapas Diocese in 2000. Some of his most important reforms were contested; the Vatican banned the ordination of indigenous deacons soon after his resignation. In a February 2002 letter to Bishop Ruiz’s successor, Felipe Arizmendi, the Vatican stated it feared indigenous deacons would deviate too far from traditional church doctrine and that the liberal interpretation of the responsibilities of deacons and their wives would be a poor example to other indigenous dioceses across the globe. Some feared the married deacons were a first step toward a married priesthood.
But in death, Bishop Ruiz found a powerful ally in Pope Francis, who not only overturned the ban, but last year prayed at Bishop Ruiz’s tomb and celebrated Mass in San Cristóbal with thousands of chiapanecos.
Bishop Ruiz’s legacy looms large in Chiapas. The state has seen some success in relieving poverty and reducing inequality, but in 2017 it still remains one of Mexico’s poorest states. Contemporary disciples like Raúl Vera, now bishop of Saltillo, in northern Mexico, apply similar pastoral methods for combating poverty and defending human rights. And in the recent Nobel Peace Prize nomination of Alejandro Solalinde, a priest famed for fighting for the rights of migrants, the spirit of Bishop Ruiz lives on.
“Don Samuel was a leader who walked amidst other people, not in front of them,” recalls Father Ituarte. The current provincial of the Dominican order in Mexico, Father Ituarte had worked closely with Bishop Ruiz since he first arrived in Chiapas in 1977, at that time traveling to the state as a tourist. He still fondly remembers his first impressions of the bishop.
“I was a traveling to Ocosingo, a town in the highlands of Chiapas, to the house of the Dominicans. Don Samuel happened to be [going] there at the same time, and I flew with him to Ocosingo in a small airplane,” he says. “There was a great number of people waiting for him, more than a thousand, if I recall, and they received him with extraordinary joy. He was very close to the people there. He was the first bishop I ever met, and he appeared to be a man of the people. I was very surprised, because in 1977 he was still not as visible as he would later be.”
Father Ituarte decided to stay in Chiapas and was ordained a priest soon afterward. From 1989 onward, he would collaborate closely with Bishop Ruiz as the diocese’s general vicar and later the vicar for justice and peace. The two men became good friends.
“I remember him mostly for his clarity of thought and his simplicity,” Father Ituarte says. “He was a man of horizontal relations, never claiming any kind of superiority. What I found astounding was the amount of respect he had for everyone, including those who opposed him. As bishop, he was slandered, insulted, attacked, but he could never bring himself to talk badly about anyone, not even in private.”
When he first arrived in Chiapas, Bishop Ruiz was was not yet the towering figure of social justice he would later become. The first-born son of poor parents in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, he grew up in a staunchly conservative Catholic family environment during a period of turmoil, when devout Catholics engaged in open warfare with Mexico’s then revolutionary and radically anticlerical government, a period known as the Cristero Wars. Enrique Krauze, one of Mexico’s foremost historians, described Bishop Ruiz’s father as sympathetic to the sinarquista movement, a far-right social and political campaign he deemed “deeply Catholic, but [one that] can also legitimately be described, in its racism and exclusivism, as fascist.”
Growing up and studying at the seminary in León, Guanajuato’s largest city, Bishop Ruiz espoused conservative Catholic thought; that continued when he entered the Colegio Pio Latinoamericano in Rome. León was one of the core regions of the sinarquista movement, which carried significant influence in the local seminary because of its strong opposition to social Catholicism and the separation of church and state (and later to liberation theology).
Sensibility for the Poor
“When he first came to Chiapas, he saw the servitude of the indigenous to the owners of coffee plantations, who only allowed the peons to work on small patches that were originally indigenous [land]. There was already a movement towards indigenous workers occupying farms in rebellion against the elites,” Father Ituarte says. “Don Samuel saw from the beginning that the condition of the indigenous wasn’t the will of God, but that it was an effect of injustice.”
“I always tell people that Don Samuel took the Second Vatican Council seriously, that he believed in it,” Father Ituarte says. “Translating Bibles into indigenous languages and placing them in the center of evangelization was an instruction of the council. He wasn’t the first to do so; Protestants here already worked on translations, but he immediately assumed it as his responsibility.”
Father Ituarte speaks from his office at the diocesan chancery, a striking, colonial building next to the city’s cathedral, one of southern Mexico’s most iconic colonial structures. The colonial center of San Cristóbal, visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, still retains much of its old charm despite European-style coffee houses that now line the ancient colonial plazas and the ubiquitous smartphone shops and internet hotspots.
The city also barely conceals a vast, centuries-old gap between rich and poor. Barefoot indigenous Mayan women dressed in colorful traditional garb roam the streets begging for change while European tourists and white and mestizo Mexicans relax in the traditional community’s modern restaurants and coffee shops.
In the late 1950s the state was still a semi-feudal region, divided among powerful landowners who ruled their coffee plantations as fiefs, much as their colonial ancestors had done in the centuries before Mexico’s independence. The Mexican Revolution of 1910-20, with its agrarian reform and redistribution of land from the powerful ruling elites to the rural poor, had largely missed Chiapas. In the 1950s, indigenous Mayans in San Cristóbal would still step from the sidewalk when they saw a white man, and the racial slur perro indio (“Indian dog”) was commonly used.
On the large coffee plantations on the countryside, most indigenous workers lived as peons in semi-slavery for the ruling elite. Basic services like health care and education were completely out of reach for the state’s poorest, as was participation as equals with the white and mestizo population in the church. Baptism would often be the only real contact the Mayan communities had with Catholicism.
“Ruiz was shocked to see the extreme poverty of the indigenous population here,” says Pedro Arriaga, a Jesuit priest who is the spokesperson for the San Cristóbal diocese. “The first thing he thought when he came here was that all indigenous chiapanecos should wear shoes and should speak Spanish, but that was before he realized how deeply rooted slavery was here.”
Bishop Ruiz almost immediately clashed with the state’s elites, especially local political bosses and plantation owners. When previous bishops visited the diocese’s rural communities, they would spend the night at one of the large estates. Bishop Ruiz broke with that tradition and stayed at the homes of indigenous workers.
“He would tell the finca owners when they offered him coffee, that the coffee was paid for with blood,” says Father Arriaga.
Father Arriaga heads the Jesuit mission in Bachajón, a small town with a significant Tzeltal Mayan population. A rural community of approximately 5,000 inhabitants in the northern jungle region of the state, it is now a three-hour drive from San Cristóbal, but that connection between the state’s major cities is relatively a recent luxury; in the 1970s, a trip to Bachajón from San Cristóbal would take two days on foot.
It was here, in towns like Bachajón, that Bishop Ruiz undertook a massive effort to train thousands of catechists and deacons to serve areas that had few priests. Bishop Ruiz was not satisfied with just translating the Bible into the local languages, he set out to master the languages himself, placing the indigenous traditions squarely at the top of church priorities.
“In terms of his pastoral and liturgical influence, the central theme was how he approached the diaconate,” David Fernández Dávalos, the Jesuit rector of the prestigious Iberoamerican University in Mexico City says. “He began educating married people, men as well as women, in the San Cristóbal diocese to become permanent deacons in local churches. It was a long process, which probably took up to 15 years before the first few deacons could be ordained.”
According to Father Fernández Dávalos, the indigenous deacons became the backbone of the San Cristóbal Diocese. “Nowadays, you can’t understand the workings of the San Cristóbal Diocese without understanding the work of the permanent married deacons, of deacons accompanied by their wives.”
“When I first arrived here in 1967, the training of catechists was already well on its way,” says Father Arriaga. “Students were given courses to read and understand the Bible and reflect on it by a method of questions and answers. The system of catechists and deacons fit in well with the indigenous cultures here.”
Many catechists would later become permanent deacons. That was the experience of 60-year-old Matteo Pérez. An indigenous Mayan whose mother tongue is Tzeltal, he remembers Bishop Ruiz fondly as “Tatic Samuel.”
“Everyone here of my generation still talks about him. He invited us into the church and trained us to take part in the process of evangelization,” he says. “But his influence went much further than teaching us the word of God.”
“Before Tatic Samuel came, we were never proud of who we were,” Mr. Pérez says. “Many if us didn’t know how to read or write. He promoted education and told us we had to improve our lives.”
Mr. Pérez became a deacon in 1975, one year after Bishop Ruiz organized the first Gathering of the Indigenous in San Cristóbal, the first grassroots conference by and for indigenous people since Europeans arrived in Mexico almost 500 years before. The event is considered an awakening of indigenous conscience in Chiapas, and historians suggest it helped pave the way for the Zapatista uprising 20 years later.
The Zapatistas and Don Samuel
There is no longer an official dialogue between the Zapatistas and the diocese, priests in Chiapas say, but contact with the so-called caracoles (“snails,” so named in reference to the cochlea as a community center that “hears” the pleas of the people), the administrative centers of the E.Z.L.N., continues. Priests often celebrate Mass and provide spiritual services at caracoles. Attempts by America to speak with Zapatista representatives about Bishop Ruiz’s legacy were unsuccessful, but signs of his influence among the members of the former guerrilla army are hard to miss.
In the north of San Cristóbal, the Zapatistas founded the Universidad de la Tierra (“University of the Earth”), which provides so-called revolutionary education, focused on the environment, indigenous emancipation and the relationship between people and the land they inhabit, with the indigenous chiapaneco culture and traditions at its teaching core. In one of the buildings, a shrine is dedicated to the bishop, and his image is often featured in Zapatista mural paintings.
“You can’t talk about the Zapatistas without talking about Don Samuel,” Father Ituarte explains. “He created a degree of consciousness that made the existence of the E.Z.L.N. possible. We didn’t start or support them as an armed group, but we’re conscious that those who started the movement touch upon the same issues as we did.”
The Zapatista uprising ultimately ended in the San Andrés agreements of 1996. The Mexican government and the insurgents agreed upon indigenous autonomy, respect for indigenous heritage and care for the Mayans’ ancestral lands. The conflict was far from over, however, and violence between the army and indigenous groups continued, culminating in the 1997 Acteal massacre.
The massacre, named after the small town of Acteal, took place on Dec. 22, 1997, when a paramilitary group armed by a local political boss killed 45 people. Police refused to intervene. Many describe it as the saddest moment of Bishop Ruiz’s life, as he spent Christmas of that year burying the victims.
Basic services are without a doubt more available now throughout the state, even in harder to reach rural areas and highlands. Moreover, according to the latest yearly “Poverty and Social Neglect” report of Mexico’s federal Social Development Secretariat (Sedesol), Chiapas is no longer the nation’s poorest state, overtaken by Guerrero and neighboring Oaxaca.
Positive as those numbers may be, they are also a bit deceiving. More than 75 percent of chiapanecos still live in poverty, more than 30 percent in extreme poverty. Land disputes and political violence are still rampant and are now joined by a new, potentially far graver problem: drug trafficking and organized crime, often in collusion with local political strongmen.
“We are now facing drug trafficking and far higher levels of corruption,” says the Rev. Marcelo Pérez. A parish priest based in the town of Simojovel, Father Perez also heads the diocese’s social ministry. “Poverty levels haven’t dropped,” and government statements that report otherwise are lies, he says bluntly.
Father Pérez would know; his social work in Bishop Ruiz’s tradition brought him into direct conflict with local strongmen and criminals in 2015. Unknown individuals placed a price on his head, a threat not to be taken lightly in a state where almost 1,500 people were murdered last year.
He attributes many of the problems the state faces now to political corruption and government aid programs. “The communities nowadays are very fragmented, very divided because of politics,” he says. “It’s an economic attack of sorts. Corruption has increased. The politically well-connected hand out fertilizer, T-shirts, water tanks as a way to create dependence, which they try to sell as success. But they’re paternalistic projects; they create people who are dependent on the government and [who] work less.”
Father Ituarte agrees. “There are now social classes in the indigenous communities that reflect the social classes of capitalism,” he says. “There are now great indigenous capitalists, who have their own workers. Poverty is still what marks Chiapas, but it no longer encompasses all indigenous people. There are now rich and poor Indian; there are indigenous drug traffickers and indigenous politicians associated with organized crime. Many of them now live in the cities; they no longer work the land.”
One thing has changed: By now Bishop Ruiz is a figure universally accepted as one the most important in Chiapas’s history, even by the elites. By the closing years of his tenure, political candidates would visit him to boost their images. Few now question his influence or accuse him of being a leftist instigator, as many did in the past.
But according to Pedro Arriaga, there are still signs that Mexico’s political elite are not entirely comfortable with the legacy of Bishop Ruiz. When Pope Francis visited his tomb last year, Father Arriaga was in charge of media relations. He recalls how Televisa, Mexico’s largest broadcaster and generally considered to be pro-government, refused to place cameras showing the pope praying at the bishop’s tomb. It refused to broadcast images of a choir composed of survivors of the Acteal massacre.
“That’s how the media in Mexico still work. They wouldn’t give the survivors of Acteal a chance to denounce the violence. They wouldn’t show Don Samuel as part of the visit,” he says.
But such subtle obliterations did little to diminish the significance of Pope Francis’ visit to Chiapas last year, generally considered a show of support to the continuing influence of Bishop Ruiz on the church’s approach to Mexico’s indigenous communities.
“It was very clear to me that the visit of Pope Francis, the fact that he came here to pray at the tomb, was a way of acknowledging the legacy of Don Samuel,” says Father Ituarte. “Like Don Samuel, the pope has an enormous sensibility for the poor, based on his experiences with the poor in Buenos Aires. He could not have come to Mexico without visiting Chiapas.”
The Zapatista uprising forced the Mexican government to pay more attention to its most impoverished state. In the wake of the armed conflict, new roads were built and most major cities, like the state capital Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Tapachula and San Cristóbal, are now well connected with smaller towns like Bachajón. Indeed, Bishop Ruiz almost instantly set out to create awareness of the extreme poverty and marginalization of the indigenous chiapanecos, but he also took steps to improve their own self-worth. Celebrating Mass in their own languages empowered the state’s impoverished farmers.The awakened social consciousness of Bishop Ruiz was further encouraged by documents emerging from the Second Vatican Council and the Medellín conference, where issues raised during the council were further discussed.
Pope Francis affirmed the right of Mexico’s 11 million indigenous people to live in a land “where oppression, mistreatment and humiliation are not the currency of the day.” He did so when he celebrated Mass for 100,000 of them in a field at San Cristobal de Las Casas, in the Southern state of Chiapas, on the third day of his visit here.
“In the heart of man and in the memory of many of our peoples is imprinted this yearning for a land, for a time when human corruption will be overcome by fraternity, when injustice will be conquered by solidarity and when violence will be silenced by peace,” the pope told his indigenous congregation. Most of them were from Chiapas, where they count for 28 percent of the population of the state, but thousands also came from Mexico’s 36 other dioceses, as well as 300 from Guatemala and 150 from El Salvador.
Francis first delivered his homily in Spanish, and when he finished it was translated into Tzeltal, up to now one of the two languages approved for the liturgy. He began by recalling the biblical story of how God led the Israelites from suffering and slavery in the country of the Pharaohs to the land of freedom, and then told his indigenous congregation that God “suffers as he sees the pain, mistreatment, and lack of justice for his people.” Even more, he shares their longing to live in a different land – “a promised land” – and has shown “his solidarity” with them by sending Jesus, his son who became man “so that darkness may not have the last word and the dawn may not cease to rise on the lives of his sons and daughters.”
Francis knows well the history and situation of the 68 indigenous peoples of Mexico, and he also knows the history of these peoples in other parts of the American continent. As a Jesuit in Argentina he learned much about this, and as pope he has repeatedly spoken in favor of their rights and called for respect for their cultures. He did so most forcefully when he spoke to the Popular Movements in Bolivia last year, and he did so too in speeches on his first day in Mexico.
He is the first pope to come to the city of San Cristobal de Las Casas, which was founded in 1528 and was one of the first cities in the Spanish colonies of North America. At an altitude of 7,281 feet, it was once called Ciudad Real and later San Cristobal, to which the name Las Casas was added later in honor of Bartolomé de Las Casas, the first bishop of Ciudad Real and forceful advocate of the rights of the indigenous peoples. The city was the political capital of the State of Chiapas until 1892, and is today its cultural capital.
Francis chose to come to Chiapas because he knows it is the least developed of Mexico’s 32 states, economically, socially and culturally. And though it is rich in natural resources, 75 percent of its people are poor, and 32 percent live in dire poverty according to Jesuit Father Pepe Aviles, who has worked here for 30 years.
In his homily, Francis spoke out strongly about this tragic situation. He recalled that “on many occasions, in a systematic and organized way, your people have been misunderstood and excluded from society. Some have considered your values, culture and traditions to be inferior. Others, intoxicated by power, money and market trends, have stolen your lands or contaminated them.”
Pausing at that point, he commented, “How sad this is!” As he has done in other situations in these days, so too here he issued a call to conversion to all who have been, or who are responsible for this grave situation that offends the dignity of God’s sons and daughters. “How worthwhile it would be for each of us to examine our conscience and learn to say, ‘Forgive me! Forgive me brothers!” he stated.
Then, looking out at his indigenous congregation, that included people of all ages, from babies in their mothers’ arms to the elderly huddled under various kinds of headgear, a great many of them wearing their traditional dress, Francis told them: “Today’s world, ravaged as it is by a throwaway culture, needs you!”
In this context he acknowledged their great respect and care for nature and the environment, and noted how it contrasts with the way the world is treated by others. Quoting from his recent encyclical on the care of our common home, he affirmed yet again that “we can no longer remain silent before one of the greatest environmental crises in world history.”
He told the indigenous people that in this regard, “you have much to teach us. Your peoples, as the bishops of Latin America have recognized, know how to interact harmoniously with nature, which they respect as a source of food, a common home and an altar of human sharing.”
Pope Francis is very concerned at the risks that the young indigenous people face today because they are “exposed to a culture that seeks to suppress all cultural heritage and features in pursuit of a homogenized world,” and they are subjected to efforts “to subdue and lull” them “into a kind of lassitude by suggesting that nothing can change, that their dreams can never come true.” On Saturday he called the Mexican bishops to greater commitment to the indigenous people, and to day he urged the young people to defend themselves against these onslaughts on their culture by clinging “to the wisdom of their elders!”
The crowd listened in total silence while he spoke, but immediately he finished they applauded. They did so even more enthusiastically when it was read to them in Tzeltal.
Francis arrived at Tuxtla Gutierrez airport early Monday morning from Mexico City which is his base during his five-day visit here. From there he flew by a Puma helicopter to San Cristobal, where the people cheered and waved on his arrival. He celebrated Mass under a blazing sun at an altar erected on a dais in front of a painted wooden imitation of the ancient façade of the cathedral of San Cristobal. The background also included representations of Maya culture; they were the dominant people here before the Spanish conquistadores arrived. Francis used some words from the local languages in his homily, and at the Mass prayers were said and the scriptures were read in languages of the original peoples in this state. The music too reflected that culture.
As we have seen on his foreign trips to Latin American countries and in the United States, Francis has always called for respect and protection of the cultures of the indigenous peoples. He is convinced that the church should do more in this regard, and told the Mexican bishops this on his first day here. He knows that Rome has been very cautious about this and 14 years ago stopped the program to have permanent indigenous deacons which Bishop Samuel Ruiz had started and which was most successful. Since becoming pope, in response to the request from the local church, Francis had the whole question studied again and then gave his approval for the program to be reinstated.
At the end of Mass today, he took another step in affirming the rights of these people by issuing a decree formally authorizing the use of nahuatl in the liturgy. This is the language most used by Mexico’s indigenous peoples but up to now it did not have Rome’s approval, whereas other languages such as Tzotzil and Tzeltal did.
Once the Mass was over, Francis went to the bishop’s residence and there had lunch with the local bishop and representatives of the indigenous peoples. Then, before leaving for Tuxlta Gutierrez he paid a visit to the cathedral of St. Cristobal where he prayed at the tomb of Bishop Samuel Ruiz, an advocate and defender of the rights of the indigenous peoples.
Commenting on the pope’s visit, Father Pepe Aviles, S.J., told the press that by coming here Francis “has supported what we were doing in all these years” and he has given “encouragement, hope and strength” to the indigenous people and to the diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas that had “opted for the poor more than 40 years” when Samuel Ruiz was bishop.
That afternoon, Pope Francis travelled by helicopter from San Cristobal to Tuxlta Gutierrez where he held a very successful and inspiring meeting with families in a stadium, before returning to Mexico City. Tomorrow, he will travel by plane to Morelia, the capital of Michoacán, which became infamous some years back for the violence linked to the drug wars. He’s sure to address the drug trade and the violence on his visit there, and to issue a call to those involved to be converted.
Long before Pope Francis spoke of a poor church for the poor and taking the church to the peripheries, Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia of San Cristobal de Las Casas built the church in southern Chiapas state.
Inspired by the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and gatherings of the Latin American bishops in Medellin, Colombia, and Puebla, Mexico, he showed a preferred option for the poor, rubbed the rich the wrong way and ran afoul of the Vatican with his pastoral approach, especially with his ordination of married, indigenous deacons.
Pope Francis will visit Chiapas Feb. 15 and celebrate Mass for indigenous peoples, including local Mayan languages in the celebration. He also will pray at the tomb of Bishop Ruiz, who died in 2011 at age 86, in the San Cristobal de Las Casas cathedral. It’s seen as a show of respect for a churchman often at odds with the Catholic hierarchy, though a pioneer in a pastoral approach since adopted by the pope.
Pope Francis “can’t come to Mexico without visiting Our Lady of Guadalupe. He couldn’t visit Chiapas without saluting the legacy of Samuel Ruiz,” said Gaspar Morquecho, an anthropologist in San Cristobal de Las Casas. “We’re talking easily of a half century of social ministry work and starting in the ’60s, having a preferential option for the poor.”
The trip to Chiapas — part of a six-day visit to Mexico — highlights the pope’s preoccupation with indigenous issues and a population that has abandoned the church in large numbers across the Americas.
While speaking in Bolivia last July, the pope apologized for the role of the church in the “so-called conquest of America” nearly 500 years ago.
His presence is expected to also bring attention again to the 1994 Zapatista uprising, when an indigenous-led rebel group demanded social, cultural and land rights. The indigenous issue in Mexico, where such populations are often impoverished and living in the most marginalized of municipalities, remains so sensitive in Mexico that local church officials said the Mexican government preferred that the pope visit elsewhere.
But for the pope to travel to Mexico and not San Cristobal de Las Casas would be unthinkable, especially since he reversed a ban the ordination of indigenous deacons imposed after Bishop Ruiz’s retirement. Pope Francis also has approved liturgies in indigenous languages.
“(Bishop Ruiz) constantly had to defend himself to the Vatican and defend his work,” said Michel Andraos, associate professor at the Chicago Theological Union and a frequent visitor to Chiapas. “He kept telling them, ‘I’m Catholic. These are the texts of the Second Vatican Council, and I am following the teachings.'”
In late 1959, St. John XXIII elevated Bishop Ruiz to serve a mostly indigenous population, many of whom worked in exploitative conditions on coffee farms, received little if any education and did not speak Spanish.
Observers say Bishop Ruiz did not start off as a rebel, but rather took issue with the poverty of indigenous peoples in Chiapas. He became known as “Don Samuel,” or, “Tata,” “Father” in the Mayan languages. His diocese even included a ministry for care of “Madre Tierra,” Mother Earth.
Discrimination ran deep in Chiapas, to the point indigenous people were prohibited from walking on the sidewalks of San Cristobal de Las Casas.” The Mexican Revolution hardly reached Chiapas, leaving large landowners who formed the local elite and enjoyed close relations with the church hierarchy.
“Don Samuel broke with this dynamic (because) he discovered the reality of the poor and saw that the Gospel could bring about change,” said Dominican Father Gonzalo Ituarte Verduzco.
The discord with the elites was a product of Bishop Ruiz’s pastoral approach, which valued indigenous traditions, trained local leaders, spoke of social justice and put an emphasis on participation. Father Ituarte said it organized indigenous people in ways seen as threatening by landowners, some of whom branded the bishop a communist.
Bishop Ruiz learned indigenous languages and tirelessly traveled the diocese, which covers an often-inaccessible highland region, arriving with mules in remote Indian villages. He went on to develop an “autochthonous church,” which would incorporate indigenous traditions and allow them to participate, at least partially, on their own terms.
“The system of domination had the indigenous only arriving at the church door. They were baptized, but nothing more. … Don Samuel’s idea is that the indigenous must enter the church, be an active part, with all of the rights,” Father Ituarte said. “The church has been acculturated in various places, (and) we believe the indigenous of the Americas have the right that the church be theirs, too, drawing on their cultural and identity.”
Bishop Ruiz trained hundreds of catechist instructors. Some of them went on to become permanent deacons, trained to serve areas without many priests. Priests say only men in the indigenous Mayan cultures can be considered authority figures, while their wives are automatically seen as authorities, too.
The issue of embracing an indigenous theology brought accusations of mixing Marxism with faith and implementing the concepts of liberation theology. The Vatican banned the ordination of indigenous deacons after Bishop Ruiz’s retirement.
The bishop’s influence went beyond church matters.
“All the presidential candidates stopped in to see him, some to greet him, but some to talk politics,” Morquecho said.
In 1974, Bishop Ruiz organized a conference of indigenous peoples, the first grass-roots gathering of its kind since the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. Observers say it sparked indigenous awareness and ultimately led to the 1994 Zapatista uprising, in which the rebels took up arms against the government and used tactics of which Bishop Ruiz disapproved.
“People from his pastoral teams, catechist instructors, deacons and candidate-deacons were in the ranks” of the Zapatistas, although they gave up their church positions, Morquecho said.
“If it hadn’t been for Don Samuel, there wouldn’t be a Zapatista army,” Father Ituarte said. “The diocese never proposed creating a people’s army. … But the increasing conscience in these communities made it possible that the Zapatista army emerged.”
Bishop Ruiz became a mediator in the dispute, despite government misgivings.
“At one point they blamed him, but they quickly realized the only person that could mediate was Don Samuel,” Father Ituarte said.
“The causes pushed by the Zapatista were the same ones we had been pushing for many years — the campesino struggle, the indigenous struggle,” though not armed conflict, Father Ituarte added.
The bishop’s final years in Chiapas proved difficult. The 1996 San Andres Accords to address some of the Zapatista grievances were not fully respected, the Zapatistas alleged. The following year, paramilitaries massacred 45 members of a Catholic pacifist group known as Las Abejas (The Bees) during a prayer meeting, just three days before Christmas.
“It was the saddest Christmas of (Bishop Ruiz’s) life,” spent saying funeral Masses for the victims, mostly women and children, said Jesuit Father Pedro Arriaga, current diocesan spokesman.
Bishop Ruiz retired in 2000 and left the diocese shortly thereafter. His coadjutor, Bishop Raul Vera Lopez, was sent to the northern city of Saltillo, a move some priests in the diocese say was a sign of discontent within the Mexican church hierarchy with the pastoral approach and church role in the Chiapas political situation. The number of Catholics leaving the church for other congregations also increased, leaving Chiapas with the lowest number of Catholics in the country.
The bishop’s legacy still lingers, however. Bishop Ruiz’s successor, Bishop Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel, has embraced a similar pastoral approach, something not seen in other Mexican dioceses after polemic leaders are replaced, observers say.
Father Ituarte said Chiapas’ indigenous people are slowly showing more assertive attitudes, make gains in areas such as commerce, politics and education, and assuming more prominent positions in society.
“The transformation in Mexico and its vision of the indigenous world has a lot to do with Don Samuel,” he said. He left “a church that is alive (with) a people, who have rediscovered their dignity, values their identity and gives its support to those in the majority, the indigenous peoples.”
The rending of the social fabric, the growing violence and the lack of opportunities for study and work for the youth, which increasingly affects the country, are part of a context that in Unitierra we have called the collapse of the capitalist system, and these have caused severe harms to the living conditions of the urban, suburban and semi-rural communities of the Central Valleys of Oaxaca, which among other things are suffering very serious problems of water, sanitation, waste, and food.
This process of decomposition has led to serious community problems such as the weakening of the uses and customs, an increase in violence in different spheres, substantial environmental damage, internal community divisions, increases in migration, dispersion, and social and political conflict. It does not seem possible that the situation could improve through solutions that come from above; to the contrary, these are likely to further the deterioration.
Regenerating the social fabric.
In response to these challenges, in 2003 the University of the Earth in Oaxaca (UNITIERRA) initiated efforts of Cultural Regeneration in 400 indigenous communities of Chiapas, Guerrero and Oaxaca, beginning with workshops of reflection and action and by means of the circulation of written and audiovisual materials produced jointly with the communities. In the second half of 2011, Unitierra continued with these efforts and initiated the project “Regenerating Our Communities”, visiting 18 communities and neighborhoods of the Central Valleys of Oaxaca.
The efforts of Cultural Regeneration consist in people, families and communities promoting for themselves changes that permit them to tackle their current challenges. The focus is on effective transformation, which produces tangible results in the short, medium and long term and which is based in the autonomous efforts of the communities.
The project is based in processes of learning in action, workshops in which the neighbors in the communities construct and use ecotechnologies –alternatives related to the problems of water, waste and food – based in the spirit of tequio (free community work), the mutual support and the sharing of knowledge. The communities decide the area of learning in which they would like to begin (water, waste, food) and once a group of neighbors meets the group begins the workshops, which are adapted to the rhythm of the community. In the medium term, the hope is to strengthen the organization of the community and for the same community to decide which other areas it would like to learn, and which other regenerative actions it would like to undertake, with the accompaniment of Unitierra.
Through the project “Regenerating Our Communities”, workshops on learning in action have been created that in some cases involve meetings with the communities to construct collectively the problematic and its possible solutions, sometimes including participation in the community assemblies where we share our proposals of cultural regeneration. Also, diverse ecotechnologies have been constructed, such as wood-saving stoves, household water filters, solar heaters, and ecological dry toilets; workshops have also been given on urban cultivation and waste management.
Important challenges have also presented themselves: The principal of these is reweaving community organization. In some communities the social fabric has been so damaged that it is extremely complicated to contribute to community actions. Another challenge is government action and the political parties, which represent the main factor in community divisiveness. Despite these and other difficulties the communities are always more and more convinced that the changes will not come from above but rather that they themselves are the ones who must take their problems and solutions into their own hands.
In each community the rhythm of the regeneration is distinct but already some important results can be observed: More than 200 families have participated in workshops of learning in action; diverse ecotechnologies related to the protection of water have been constructed in a collective manner, and families are increasingly reducing, reusing and recycling waste, and planting vegetable gardens – achievements that constitute significant changes in the conditions of life in the communities. Among the achievements of the project, a highlight is the formation of local promoters, who are people of the same community who give workshops of learning in action and respond to the efforts of regenerating the social fabric, based on which the autonomous efforts can begin to be a reality and Unitierra can participate simply through the work of accompaniment.
In the upcoming years the project will hopefully continue as a result of the momentum of the communities and also extend to other communities throughout the region. The project will hopefully also contribute to improving the material conditions of life and deepening the political work with the communities, that is, the daily construction of solutions based in communitarian organization, thus reweaving the social fabric and strengthening the autonomy of the neighborhoods and communities.
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