Bishop Samuel Ruíz Garcia’s death this week leaves a gap of immeasurable proportions, the passing of a generation, some might say. Though others of the progressive wing of CELAM (the Latin American Conference of Bishops), such as Gustavo Gutiérrez1, were better known as the early articulators and later elaborators of liberation theology and the preferential option for the poor, Don Samuel was the beloved pastor of thousands of indigenous chiapañecas and chiapañecos, Tztotziles, Tzeltales, Cho’les, and Tojolabales. Like the 16th century namesake of the highland town, San Cristóbal de las Casas (SCLC)2, and heart of the diocese he led for forty years, Don Samuel was a defender of the indigenous people, whose lives had remained largely untouched by the revolutionary, redistributory changes of 1911 and beyond.
He was short, unassuming, not given to regalia; funny, elfin, impish even. The first time that I met him, I was part of a small group from Sipaz (Servicio internacional para la paz), BPFNA’s then-partners in Chiapas, there to talk to him about our efforts to bring about reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants3, which would soon boil over in the Christmas of 1997 massacre of Acteal4. He hardly seemed the dangerous threat to the well-being of the Catholic Church, whose invitation to step down he had politely but firmly declined in 1993. It was also the first time I met Raúl Vera, appointed co-adjutor to Monsignor Ruíz by the Vatican in the months following the 1994 uprising of the EZLN (Zapatista Army for National Liberation) – and Don Samuel’s appointment as mediator in the conflict. It was widely known that Father Vera was sent to contain and challenge the influence of the Bishop, who, as Father Vera tells it himself, was said to be a communist, a revolutionary, an agitator, way too sympathetic to the cause – and to the admixture of Mayan ingredients into their particular Catholic expression – of the indigenous of his diocese. He’s not a pastor, Father Vera was told upon his appointment, but a trouble-maker.
As Father Vera began to join the Bishop in his diocesan peregrinations, he saw a pastor, lover of and loved by, his people, whose languages he had learned to speak. Jtatic, they called him: Daddy, a kind of Tzotzil Abba. Soon slipping out of the monitoring mandate of the Mexican nuncio, Vera joined his voice to that of the Monsignor, calling for autonomy and the full enjoyment of human rights of the indigenous peoples. For his efforts, upon Bishop Ruíz’ retirement, Don Raúl was dismissed to the northern Chihuahua deserts of Saltillo and the conservative Bishop Felipe Arizmendi Equivel of Tapachula was appointed the new Bishop in San Cristóbal.5
When Don Samuel arrived in Chiapas in 1959, he brought with him the staunchly traditional viewpoints of his Guanajuato birthplace and an inclination to compliance in those years of fierce anticlerical battles waged by the federal government. However, he found himself deeply impacted by the Second Vatican Council, giving him a voice to articulate his own experience. ‘When we arrived’, he said to a few of us huddled in small-group discussion, part of workshops coincident with his retirement in January 2000, ‘the indios walked stooped, bent over, required to leave the footpath and bow to any criollo whatever who happened to be coming towards him on that path. Now they walk erect on the same footpaths they share with others.’
But, to the indignation of a highly stratified church, he went further. He invited them in.
Before the 1960s were out, he was learning the vocabulary of his parishioners, preaching about the equal dignity of women and the need to find and validate local expressions of Christian faith. He was an enthusiastic participant in the Medillín meeting of CELAM that issued in liberation theology – and an enthusiastic implementer of its implications for the church in Chiapas. Called an izquierdista (on the political left) and a socialist, too sympathetic to the strange ideas of his parishioners, he did not shrink from courting crucifixion. In 1989 he founded what is known as FrayBa, the Fray Bartolomé Centre for Human Rights – whose efforts regularly put them at risk of disappearance or death.6
On 25 January 2000, thirty-three thousand of them showed up for his retirement party, receiving mass in the cathedral square, served by a hundred priests and lay people. What an astonishing sight and sound – repeated last week as they said their farewells to their beloved Jtatic.
Amongst this week’s lectionary readings is Matthew’s Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor, the mournful, the meek, the seekers after justice, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers; ah yes, the peacemakers; those who are persecuted for the sake of justice. Blessed was this particular trouble-maker. Our Christian family has lost a prophet, a man of courage, and a true disciple of Jesus.
1 World-renowned and influential Peruvian theologian, he wrote the seminal text, Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation, in 1971.
2 Fray Bartolomé de las Casas arrived as an early settler and participant in – and then, as of 1515, opposer to – the atrocities committed against the indigenous of the americas. He became a Dominican monk , was named the first bishop of Chiapas and spent the remainder of his life in efforts to protect the indigenous against the onslaught of the European invaders. In 1550 he participated in the Valladolid debate, where he argued that the Indians were fully human and that forcefully subjugating them was unjustifiable, against Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who argued that they were less than human and required Spanish masters in order to acquire civilization.
3 In a country in which the vast majority are Christian and close to 90% of them are Catholic, Chiapas is unusual, with a large and growing minority of Protestants, or evangelicals (some say as high as 45%) – a situation due in large part to a highly successful collaboration between emissaries of the Vatican and southern US-based evangelical organisations such as El Verbo, that began in the late 1970s, a deliberate campaign aimed at diluting the Bishop’s influence. Conversion from the Catholicism of the tradicionalistas (syncretists) or the caciques (landlords and political bosses) often meant not just a creedal departure from one’s ancient community but an economic one, as new Protestants would decline further participation in the pulque (cactus liquor)-soaked festivals of saints’ days. In some communities, particularly San Juan Chamula, Protestants were evicted from their land, arrested on dubious charges, or disappeared.
4 On 22 December 1997, 45 members of the pacifist group, Las Abejas (the Bees), were killed in the small village of Acteal by a paramilitary group known as Paz y Justicia. Soldiers at a nearby military outpost didn’t intervene during the attack, which lasted for hours, and the following morning, soldiers were found washing the church walls to hide the blood stains. Las Abejas, composed of people from 48 indigenous communities in the highlands of Chiapas, continue to work for peace and demonstrate their solidarity with other social struggles.
5 Though Bishop Arizmendi was known as a moderate, his enthusiastic preaching in favour of the much-derided 2000 encyclical, Iesus Dominus, one that for many took the Roman Catholic Church back to its pre-Vatican II days of ecclesial centrism, had a huge and deleterious impact on Catholic-Protestant dialogue and reconciliation efforts.
6 Four days after his death, FrayBa announced the appointment of (also now known as ‘Tatic’, Raúl Vera, to the presidency of the Human Rights Centre. His speech in acceptance of the appointment and recognition of Don Samuel’s legacy.