Remembering Don Samuel of Chiapas

Long before Pope Francis spoke of a poor church for the poor and of taking the church to the peripheries, Bishop Samuel Ruiz García of San Cristóbal de Las Casas built such a church in Mexico’s southern Chiapas state. Inspired by the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and gatherings of the Latin American bishops in Medellín, Colombia, and Puebla, Mexico, he showed a preference 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 on 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 Cristóbal de Las Casas cathedral. This is being 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.

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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 Cristóbal de Las Casas. The trip to Chiapas—part of his 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.

“[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.’”

Discrimination ran deep in Chiapas; indigenous people were even prohibited from walking on the sidewalks of San Cristóbal 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 Gonzalo Ituarte Verduzco, a Dominican priest.

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 emphasized participation. Father Ituarte said it organized indigenous people in ways seen as threatening by landowners, some of whom branded the bishop a communist.

“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 [culture] and identity.”

The bishop’s influence went beyond church matters. 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, using tactics of which Bishop Ruiz disapproved. 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.

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