In January 2016, 12 Canadians and one American went to the diocese of Chiapas 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 of the priorities for our national JPIC committee.
We witnessed the work and fruits of a very vital diocesan process put in place by Bishop Samuel Ruiz and the people of his diocese. The process is, essentially, the indigenization of the church in the Diocese of Chiapas. He 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 begun 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. That single 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, dialogue, a diocesan plan, hard work and intense commitment during more than 40 years of collaborative work between himself and the indigenous and Mexican people, the indigenous face of Christ in the church of Chiapas is visible today.
A major initiative was the formation of indigenous deacons, who would minister with their wives. The deacons were involved in organizing and community development, with a strong emphasis on prayer, fasting, defending their rights and promoting their culture in a non-violent way.
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.
The ministry of Ruiz was in the spirit of Bartholomé de Las Casas, who fought for the rights of the indigenous people against the devastating impact of the first Papal Bulls that divided the New World in two and gave the monarchs of Portugal and Spain the moral right to exploit and subjugate the indigenous populations they “discovered.”
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 back in Spain lobbying against the ravages of colonization among his flock.
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. This was the 23 annual commemoration of the massacre.
We spent two days in Museo Jtatik Samuel, built by the people in honour of and dedicated to sharing the legacy of Ruiz. There we learned about his life and ministry, indigenous theology and participated in a Mayan prayer service. The Mayans consider themselves people of the corn.
We participated in a march and eucharist with thousands of mostly indigenous campesinos celebrating the fifth anniversary of Ruiz’ death. Especially touching was the incensing and placing of crosses representing all the martyrs of Acteal, around the Mayan altar.
Current Coadjutor Bishop Enrique Díaz Díaz delivered a fiery homily that reminded the people of Ruiz. It was like he unofficially installed himself as the new bishop on the side of the people. The response of the congregation communicated a palpable resurgence of hope.
We attended a fifth annual awards ceremony at the Codimuj Women’s Diocesan Centre to honour persons and communities that had suffered and struggled for justice. Bishop Raúl Vera López, OP, who was coadjutor bishop with Ruiz from 1995 - 2000, but was also removed, was present and spoke from the heart about their struggle. Rev. 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 the new challenges that Ruiz did not have to face, and filled us in on the five congresses on indigenous theology that have been held.
We travelled to other communities and listened to speakers about women’s rights, the struggle for indigenous rights, and the work of translation into the tseltal, ch’ol and tsotil languages.
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.
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 how they organize to defend their rights and protect their spirituality and culture.
Sunday was a day of reflection and debriefing the impact this journey had on us. What stayed with us was the dignity and strength of the people in Acteal; a sense of the church still operating out of a colonial model in some of our communities in Canada; 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 all 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.
We flew to Mexico City where we enjoyed the hospitality of the Oblates. Huge roadside billboards announced the upcoming visit of Pope Francis. Even the onboard magazine featured him on the cover as a pilgrim of peace and mercy, as well as a three-page article within. The feeling we had was that his visit could only add to the resurgence of hope that we had witnessed for ourselves.
The people told us that they did not want us to go there to help them. Rather, they need us to come, stay with them, learn about their struggles, and return to share their story with the world.