The community Santa Fe de Los Altos in 1968 still had campesino farms surrounding it when I led a group of Canadian and American teenagers on a six-week summer service project there. High up on the mountain rim above Mexico City this then small town began as a haven for the poor, ill and oppressed in 1532. The 16th-century Spanish conquistadores with their allied native army had shattered the Aztec Confederacy centred on city-state of Mexico-Tenochtitlan in the heart of the central valley of Mexico below.
The colonial church of Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion lay at the heart of the community. The parish compound where the eight of us from Project Christopher stayed at the invitation its young pastor, Padre Vincente Jara Luna, abutted the church. A low adobe complex of rooms surrounded a shared interior courtyard with an outdoor pila or washing basin and the mandatory chickens always under foot. Padre Vincente name was then at the end of the long unbroken list of priests dating back to when Vasco de Quiroga first shepherded this community.
Vasco de Quiroga was a religious and political leader in the earliest days of this Spanish colony. As a judge of the Royal Audiencia, the highest court of the fledgling Spanish Empire, he sought to bring the cruel and corrupt to justice. Quiroga saw first-hand the horrific decimation of introduced European diseases and the virtual enslavement of first peoples on the large encomiendas cobbled together from seized native lands by the rapacious conquistadores and their successors. In Santa Fe de Los Altos he attempted to create a model haven for the oppressed. Thomas More’s Utopia first published in 1516 influenced his actions. By 1536 de Quiroga would become the first bishop of the diocese of Michoacán, Mexico, where he would repeat the experience of Santa Fe de Los Altos.
Today’s first reading touches on a recurring theme for Joshua ben Sira or Joshua son of Sirach; social justice. He wrote his book of ethical teachings almost 200 years before the birth of Jesus. The prayers of the humble, the wronged and the person “whose service is pleasing to the Lord will be accepted.” Were the prayers of the first residents sheltered at Santa Fe de Los Altos heard?
In the letter Paul writes to Timothy we hear the words of an old man who expects to die soon. Rescued from “every evil attack” he faced by the Lord, Paul knows that he “fought the good fight” and “finished the race.” He kept the faith even in the face of seemingly impossible odds. Paul is aware, though, that the path he set his foot on continues. He hopes that Timothy, his protégé, and other members of the faith community he nurtured will carry on. Did Bishop Quiroga sense that as well a he lay dying in 1565?
Poverty blighted the community of Santa Fe de Los Altos that I first knew in 1968. People gleaned building supplies for their homes from the municipal garbage dump of Mexico City filling old sand pits nearby. A couple of stand pipes provided the only reliable source of clean water. Our diet in the parish compound centred on beans, rice and corn tortillas but at least we had three meals a day. Many neighbours could not count on this.
Nearly five decades ago now the first signs of major change had already become apparent. Eventually these would lead to the modern commercial and residential district with its futuristic architecture, which we see today. I recall once following a steep path down the barranca or narrow ravine behind the church then climbing up the far side to a building site. I talked my way into a luxury mansion then under construction. Three large circular windows maybe three metres in diameter each, looked over onto the colonial church and surrounding humble homes of the settlement Quiroga had founded. The huge centre “window” was beautifully crafted from translucent onyx.
This ostentatious display of wealth contrasted sharply with the poverty in the community where I worked. Families had trouble finding the money necessary to buy the uniforms and school supplies for their children. Kids unable to go to school ran out to cars slowed by the topes or speed bumps as it went through the heart of town trying to sell them chiclets or other small items.
A sudden illness could wipe out any savings a family might have. Water-born diseases affect many. As it turned out I caught hepatitis there but it was only diagnosed in Regina upon my return. Ten days in hospital had me well on the way to complete recovery. Many of the people of Santa Fe de Los Altos just had to live with chronic illnesses and maybe die early from their complications.
The Gospel passage from Luke relates a parable Jesus told of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Do we like the Pharisee define ourselves by what we don’t do rather than by what we do? How did the family living in the mansion across from Santa Fe de Los Altos justify their good fortune and the great gulf between them and their neighbours? Can we be forgiven our often wilful blindness? Who should be beating their breasts? Remember, “Whoever exalts themselves will be humbled and whoever humbles themselves will be exalted.”
Dougherty is co-chair of the Social Justice Committee at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Whitehorse, Yukon.