Note: On February 15, Pope Francis visited the southern state of Chiapas. It was here that indigenous peoples rose up against the neoliberal system and centuries of injustice on Jan. 1, 1994. In another gesture that showed that this Pope is not the traditional Vatican company man, the Argentine pope visited the grave of Don Samuel Ruiz, the Bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas, who took up the indigenous cause for justice as his own and as an obligation of the church. Who was Samuel Ruiz? And why did the Catholic Church’s highest authority pay reverence to a man who in many ways defied the church hierarchy? I attended the mass on the death of Don Sam in 2011. Here is the account:
It was a remarkable mass for a remarkable man.
The news spread rapidly yesterday morning of the death of Bishop Samuel Ruiz. He died at the age of 86, the day that marked 51 years since his ordination as Bishop of the Diocese of San Cristobal. By 2:30 the Mexico City church had filled with an unusual group of religious leaders, peace activists and figures who have marked Mexican politics over the years. All recalled their work alongside Tatik (“father” in Tzeltal) with a bittersweet blend of loss and gratitude.
I sat in the pews, listening to the first strains of “métale a la marcha, métale al tambor, métale que traigo un pueblo en mi voz…” (Join the march, join the drum, join in, I carry the people in my voice…) watching the faces of hundreds of committed people who in various moments of a long and full life walked alongside Don Sam, El caminante. A history that changed Mexico forever flooded into the room.
Bishop Raúl Vera recalled that Samuel Ruiz arrived in the state of Chiapas to face a reality he had not imagined, a reality that many in Mexico didn’t know existed. He set out to travel to the far corners of the region– not an easy task–and saw with his own eyes the scars of the plantation-owners’ whips on the backs of indigenous men and heard the accounts of how young girls were routinely forced to have their virginity “tested” (lost) by the owners when they decided to marry, among other terrible examples of the feudal conditions his new parishioners suffered. He encountered a system of oppression and brutality that changed his life and he decided the system had to change, through the word of God and an intense social commitment.
It’s worth mentioning that Bishop Raúl Vera came to know his counterpart when the Church sent him as a “coadjutor” to Ruiz in 1995, presumably to temper his radical influence. The opposite happened. In what Vera describes as a conversion experience, he encountered the conditions that led Don Samuel to embrace a church of and for the poor. He soon became a partner in bringing the church down to the people and building a movement for its indigenous members to gain their rightful place in the church, and in society. To this day, Don Raúl remains a successor to the work of Don Samuel. Now based in Coahuila, his is a strong voice in defense of human rights as Mexico suffers a new phase of violence and repression.
Father Heriberto Cruz recounted that the discussion among some members of the church, initiated in large part by Don Samuel based on his experience in Chiapas in those early days, did not just center on the ecclesiastical concern of how the church could alleviate the burdens of its members. Ruiz and others began to ask themselves what role the church itself played in their oppression, and how to break that oppression. A deep critique of the role of traditional methods of evangelization in suppressing indigenous culture followed. Ruiz learned to speak Tzotzil and Tzeltal and became conversant with other indigenous languages of the region. He insisted on respect for indigenous cultures–another factor that would bring him into conflict with some elements of the Church that criticized what they viewed as the excessive syncretism of his theology and practices.
Don Samuel Ruiz formed part of and led a movement within the Roman Catholic Church that based its theology on the Vatican II commitment to greater lay participation and the “option for the poor” that shifted attention to the need to serve the historically downtrodden. It also put forth the idea that the church cannot ignore injustice without being complicit.
These would become the principles Don Sam acted on. As mediator in the Zapatista indigenous uprising of 1994, Ruiz helped create the conditions for the new indigenous movement that marked not only Mexico but the world. His work as leader of the National Mediation Commission (CONAI) led to an unprecedented dialogue that resulted in the San Andrés Accords on Indigenous Rights and Culture, signed and later violated by the federal government.