In a march marking the fifth anniversary of the death of Bishop Samuel Ruiz, indigenous campesinos carried crosses representing the 45 people martyred in Acteal in 1997.

PHOTO SUPPLIED

In a march marking the fifth anniversary of the death of Bishop Samuel Ruiz, indigenous campesinos carried crosses representing the 45 people martyred in Acteal in 1997.

March 21, 2016
ARCHBISHOP SYLVAIN LAVOIE
SPECIAL TO THE WCR

In January, 12 Canadians and one American went to the Diocese of Chiapas, Mexico, for a 10-day solidarity visit. I participated as a member of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs of the Western bishops, and also as chair of our local Oblate Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) committee.

Reconciliation with the indigenous peoples is one priority for our national JPIC committee.

We witnessed the work and fruits of a diocesan process begun by Bishop Samuel Ruiz and the people of his diocese. The process is, essentially, the indigenization of the Church in the diocese.

Ruiz sought above all to implement the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. In 1974, the diocese hosted a first indigenous congress on the 500th anniversary of the birth of Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, the first bishop of the diocese, which was created in 1539.

That gathering of about 2,000 representatives of indigenous communities allowed them to hear each other's stories of oppression and suffering for the first time. The event was a major catalyst for empowerment of the people, and it led the local Church to rethink its pastoral approach and process.

Through a diocesan synod, much dialogue, a diocesan plan, hard work and intense commitment during more than 40 years of collaborative work between Ruiz and the indigenous and Mexican people, the indigenous face of Christ in the Church of Chiapas is visible today.

Ti'Akil women cook tortillas on community ovens.

PHOTO SUPPLIED

Ti'Akil women cook tortillas on community ovens.

A major initiative was the formation of indigenous deacons, who would minister with their wives. The deacons were involved in community development, with a strong emphasis on prayer, fasting, defending their rights and promoting their culture in a non-violent way.

DIGNITY AND COURAGE

Their newfound dignity, moral strength and courage, however, ruffled the feathers of the powers-that-be, including mining companies, mostly Canadian. This trip was beginning to strike close to home.

Ruiz's ministry was in the spirit of de Las Casas, who fought for the rights of the indigenous people against the devastating impact of the first papal bulls that divided the world in two and gave the monarchs of Portugal and Spain the moral right to exploit and subjugate the indigenous populations they "discovered."

De Las Casas' efforts to obtain justice for the indigenous people upset the political and ecclesial powers, and he was pulled out of the diocese after only 10 months. He spent the rest of his life as a bishop emeritus in Spain lobbying against the ravages of colonization.

With that historical background to ponder, our schedule was packed with events, field trips and input from resource people. We celebrated the Eucharist at Acteal, the site of a massacre of 45 indigenous people on Dec. 22, 1997.

Bishop Samuel Ruiz

CNS PHOTO | VICTOR ALEMAN

Bishop Samuel Ruiz

We spent two days in Museo Jtatik Samuel, built by the people in honour of and dedicated to sharing the legacy of Bishop Ruiz. There, we learned about his life and ministry and indigenous theology, and participated in a Mayan prayer service. The Mayans consider themselves people of the corn.

We also took part in a march and Eucharist with thousands of mostly indigenous campesinos celebrating the fifth anniversary of Ruiz's death. Especially touching was the incensing and placing of crosses representing all the martyrs of Acteal, around the Mayan altar.

FIERY HOMILY

Current Coadjutor Bishop Enrique Díaz Díaz delivered a fiery homily that reminded the people of Ruiz. It was as though he unofficially installed himself as the new bishop on the side of the people. The response of the congregation communicated to us a palpable resurgence of hope.

We attended a fifth annual awards ceremony at the Codimuj Women's Diocesan Centre to honour persons and communities who had suffered and struggled for justice. Bishop Raúl Vera López, who was coadjutor bishop with Ruiz from 1995 to 2000, but was also removed, was present and spoke from the heart about their struggle.

Father Marcello Perez and his parish council of Simojovel received the first award. They continue to receive death threats for their struggles.

We also met with retiring Bishop Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel, who highlighted new challenges that Ruiz did not have to face, and filled us in on the five congresses on indigenous theology that have been held.

The next few days were spent travelling to communities and listening to speakers about women's rights and the struggle for indigenous rights.

Faceless crosses represent the disappeared.

PHOTO SUPPLIED

Faceless crosses represent the disappeared.

Chiapas is also the stronghold of the Zapatista movement (Zapatista Army of National Liberation), established in 1983 to demand respect for the rights of indigenous populations and the recognition of their culture, and to claim control of local resources, especially land.

The Zapatistas set aside their weapons after an uprising in 1994 and moved to the political sphere through a strategy of civil resistance and the use of communications media.

MAYAN CEREMONY

We then trekked up a mountain through the jungle and cornfields to Ti'Akil, an isolated Mayan Catholic community for a Mayan ceremony, visit and communal meal. Even there, we heard of organizing to defend their rights and protect their spirituality and culture.

Sunday was a day of reflection and debriefing the impact of this journey.

What stayed with us was the dignity and strength of the people in Acteal; a sense of the Church in some Canadian communities still operating out of a colonial model; the simplicity and power of the rituals, the strength of the isolated Ti'Akil community around liturgy and the meal with a fullness of life and joy; the energy, passion and deep commitment of the speakers we heard; the conversion of bishops, priests and religious; the transformation of the Church from the power of politics to the power of faith, and evangelization through the culture.

RESURGENCE OF HOPE

We then flew to Mexico City where we enjoyed the hospitality of the Oblates. Huge billboards announced the coming visit of Pope Francis. Even the onboard magazine featured him on the cover as a pilgrim of peace and mercy, and included a three-page article inside. The feeling we had was that the pope's visit could only add to the resurgence of hope that we had witnessed for ourselves.

The people told us they did not want us to go to Chiapas to help them, but to stay with them, learn about their struggles and return home to share their story with the world.