Mexico – A champion of the people

In the 1960’s, Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcìa’ speaking out against Chiapas’ unwritten laws – such as those prohibiting Indians from walking the streets after dark and forcing them to step off city sidewalks into the gutter whenever non-Indians approached. He said his faith led him to examine the roots of the injustice and prompted his writings on the exploitation of Native Americans and his research into indigenous cosmology and theology. His remarks against the powerful landlord class were construed by some as originating from Marxist class theory, rather than the Gospel. During Pope John Paul II’s 1990 visit to Mexico, landowners published an open letter, accusing Bishop Ruiz of being communist and fomenting class hatred.

Starting in 1970, Bishop Ruiz ordered translations of the Bible and other religious texts in the indigenous languages of Chiapas. He trained Indian catechists, or instructors, to organize village assemblies throughout the mountains and jungles of the diocese. By the end of his tenure, there were more than 20,000 Indian catechists in Chiapas. He made the Word of God accessible to the people. Bishop Ruiz learned to speak four Mayan languages and often traveled by mule through his diocese, where he was affectionately called Don Samuel or “Tatic,” which means father in the Mayan language.

Samuel Ruiz Garcìa’s own life had started in poverty: he was born on November 3, 1924, in Irapuato, in central Mexico. He was the eldest of five children, and his parents struggled to survive on a shared smallholding and a little grocery shop. His schooling was irregular at first, in part because of the stringent laws against Catholics and their schools in the years of persecution of the Mexican Church in the 1930s, after the Mexican revolution. At the age of 13, however, things changed when he joined the diocesan minor seminary. After his ordination in 1949, he obtained a doctorate in biblical studies in Rome. On his return to Mexico, he became a teacher, then rector of the diocesan seminary in LeÛn and, subsequently, a canon of LeÛn Cathedral, before being made Bishop of San CristÛbal.

When Bishop Ruiz first arrived in Chiapas the Church in Latin America had begun a process of change, although the new bishop was not at first fully aware of the shape this was taking. He explained that he initially followed his predecessor in encouraging the work of catechists who, by their service and the example of their own lives, inspired the rest of the community. However, in hindsight, he criticized this approach for its orientation towards Western attitudes and organization from the top down rather than from among the people themselves using their own cultural values.

A bishop’s conversion

He was present at the Second Vatican Council and was particularly impressed by the part played by the bishops from Africa in putting together the decree Ad Gentes about the Church’s missionary activity. They were lobbying strongly for a new approach to Christian anthropology which would help them more with their missionary work and value the dignity of different cultures. He referred often to the influence that Ad Gentes had on him at a time when he says he himself was still thinking of ways to teach his people to substitute Spanish for their own indigenous languages in order to evangelize them and help them economically. And here was Ad Gentes, advising Christians to familiarize themselves with their own national and religious traditions and seek out the seeds of the Word that lay latent within these.

The ‘conversion’ did not stop there. In 1968, CELAM held its second conference, this time in Medell’n, Colombia, to look at ways of making Vatican II more readily applicable to the Latin American context. There was a dramatic shift in focus towards the widespread misery on the sub-continent which was diagnosed as coming from unjust social and economic structures which the poor were powerless to change. This attention to what was described famously as ‘institutionalized violence’ made a profound impression. So the catechists in Don Samuel’s diocese became the spokespeople of their communities, which were considering all aspects – social, political, economic and cultural – of their situation in order to work out where the Spirit of God was leading them.

The next point of departure on Don Samuel’s road was the Congress of the Indigenous that he held in San CristÛbal in 1974. The communities had elected speakers whom they felt led straight lives and could represent them. The catechists of the diocese now were not just there to help with traditional catechism, with services and singing, but were genuine representatives of their communities in all the matters most important to them.

There followed three days of lament for all the abuses that the indigenous peoples had suffered, with details, but also concrete suggestions about what to do in each case. By this time, Don Samuel could speak two of the four languages of the indigenous present and had a working knowledge of the others. He said that he learned enough at the meeting to see the inadequacy of his diocesan pastoral plan, which he scrapped there and then and developed another based on what he had heard.
Obviously, all this sustained work – to make his people aware of the sources of their problems and then encourage them to discover and apply solutions – was sooner or later going to lead to conflict with those causing the problem: the large landowners and ranch owners and their political backers in the state of Chiapas, as well as in the federal government.

The only mediator
When the frustration of the people finally broke out into the rebellion of the Zapatista Liberation Army (EZLN) in 1994, the first person to be blamed was Don Samuel. Supposedly, it was his scheming and his orchestration of the theology of violence that had driven the indigenous to join the rebel army and invade several towns. But this phase of blame passed when it became clear that he was the only mediator that the rebels would accept to deal with the government, and the parties met, under his mediation, in the cathedral in San CristÛbal.

A truce was agreed and eventually an agreement on greater autonomy for the indigenous was made between the representatives of the government and the EZLN. What was more surprising was the tensions that Bishop Ruiz had with the Church. At a certain moment, he was asked to resign and replied that if asked to by the pope, of course, he would do so. This did not happen and his later prestigious role as mediator further protected him.

In 1996, Bishop Ruiz was awarded the Pacem in Terris Award. It was named after a 1963 encyclical letter by Pope John XXIII that calls upon all people of goodwill to secure peace among all nations. He won the SimÛn Bol’var International Prize from UNESCO in 2000 due to his efforts to fight poverty, exclusion, corruption, violence and for his help in the mutual understanding of Latin Americans.

Like prophet Jeremiah
‘I haven’t evangelized them, they have evangelized me!’ So, Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garc’a replied, with directness and humility, to a compliment about his work in his diocese of San CristÛbal de Las Casas in Mexico. This quiet, chubby, unassuming little man gave everything that he had of his mind and strength to the people of his diocese, over the forty years that he was their bishop. Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garc’a died on January 24, 2011, of complications from long-standing illnesses. Wearing a miter and stole embroidered with Mayan motifs, his body was buried in the cathedral of San CristÛbal accompanied by lamentation by the indigenous people to whom he had dedicated himself. At his funeral Mass, Ra˙l Vera, Bishop of Saltillo, recalled how Bishop Ruiz ‘always had eyes to see the image of God in each one of his brothers and sisters.’ “Don Samuel was like the prophet Jeremiah, a man who lived amidst and experienced contradiction,” said Bishop Vera.

Mexican President Felipe CalderÛn said Bishop Ruiz’s death “constitutes a great loss for Mexico.’ ‘Samuel Ruiz strove to build a more just Mexico – egalitarian, dignified and without discrimination in it – so that indigenous communities have a voice and their rights and freedoms are respected by all,” the president said in a statement. Don Samuel has left, as important and tangible example of his work, the Fray BartolomÈ de Las Casas Human Rights Center that he set up in 1989. Its website shows just how terribly his people in Chiapas still suffer. We can only hope that Don Samuel’s commitment to the people of his diocese lives on through his prophetic legacy and those who continue his work.

Lorenzo Carraro


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