Latin America Witnesses: Bishop Ruiz, the champion of the poor and indigenous

He was a defender of the Mayans in southern Mexico and a mediator in peace talks between rebels and the government.

Samuel Ruiz Garcìa 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 Leon and, subsequently, a canon of Leon Cathedral, before being made Bishop of San Cristobal.

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.

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 Medellin, 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.

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 travelled by mule through his diocese, where he was affectionately called Don Samuel or “Tatic,” which means father in the Mayan language.

The next point of departure on Don Samuel’s road was the Congress of the Indigenous that he held in San Cristobal 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.

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 Cristobal.

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 Simon Bolivar 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.

Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia died on January 24, 2011, of complications from long-standing illnesses. Wearing a mitre and stole embroidered with Mayan motifs, his body was buried in the cathedral of San Cristobal accompanied by lamentation by the indigenous people to whom he had dedicated himself.


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