Monday, July 27, 2009

Fifty Years as Bishop of the Poor: Don Samuel Ruiz García

His people are already starting to honor Bishop Emeritus Don Samuel Ruiz García of the diocese of Chiapas, Mexico, who next January will be celebrating his 50th anniversary as bishop and 60th anniversary as a priest. Ruiz is now 84 years old and retired but on Saturday night, a big concert was given in his honor, and an old friend of his, Francisco Gómez Maza, offered the following reminiscence which he also posted on his blog, Análisis a Fondo. We bring it to you in English.

Last Saturday at 5 p.m. we had a huge concert in the Auditorium of Centro Universitario Cultura to pay homage to Dr. Samuel Ruiz García, who will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his consecration as bishop of Chiapas on January 25th of next year. The organizers of the festivities have asked me to give my testimony and I think it would only be right to share it with my friends who honor me by reading this space each day:

I met Don Samuel sometime around the 25th of January, 1960. It was my first year of seminary in what was left of the Pontifical University of Chiapas. I met him and was very fortunate because I participated as an incense bearer in his consecration Mass as Bishop in San Cristóbal cathedral.

It was a huge party. Delegations came to San Cristóbal from all over Chiapas, and the cathedral and the surrounding areas, the central park, and adjacent streets were crammed with people.

It was a medieval ceremony, like those that were usually celebrated in the preconciliar Church. Much smoke came out of the censer that I carried. I was very close to him.

On that day, the young rector of the seminary in León began as bishop of Chiapas, a successor to Bishop Torreblanca, of an ancient, imperial, almost Constantinian tradition, when Mass was celebrated by priests with their backs to the people -- a custom which the Second Vatican Council, convened by the Good Pope John XXIII, abolished.

It was a cold, very cold January in Los Altos de Chiapas. Don Sam started his pastoral work, visiting the Conciliar Seminary of Chiapas. I was already a rebel then, a young man who dreamed about and idolized Marx, Engels, the Cuban revolutionaries, the Colombian revolutionaries, and who wasn't very obedient to the rules, the strict rules of the seminary. Samy, as we had already started to call him, visited us and I saw him as the most conservative and reactionary man I had ever seen in my life. The strict practices of seminary "education" would continue, with hard professors, disciplinarians who were detached from the real world and friends, yes, very good friends of the rich in San Cristóbal and the ranch owners.

The rector of the school, who came to care a lot for me, was implacable. And the bishop seemed to be continuing in the tradition. I didn't like it. I didn't like anything. He was scandalized -- or so I believed -- at the forwardness of we students, who instead of going to chapel to practice piety would go out to smoke on the terraced roof of one of the school buildings. We came to hate all piousness and only devoted ourselves to studying. I was fascinated with studying Greek and Latin, and the tales from La Celestina that my literature professor, an open-minded priest who was progressive for his time -- involved with the people, involved with the indigenous -- used to tell. But that was just an exception.

Samy wanted to impose order on us. But in the end we were the ones who put him in order, ha, ha, ha. Then he went to the meetings of the Vatican Council. Ever since that youthful period, when I was barely 15 or 16 years old, I devoted myself to journalism. Every Saturday I stayed awake to paste up my articles and summaries of magazines on a huge board, that at dawn on Sunday I would stick on the walls of the wing where I lived and studied Science and Humanities. Sometimes, Samy would approach that rudimentary newspaper mural. We also had a "radio station" that we called "XETVC". It consisted of only a sound system and a loudspeaker through which we aired home programming and music, so that everyone could listen to it during recess, and during study time and classes we put on religious music at low volume.

Once, Don Samuel decided to come through and look over the little rooms we lived in and how surprised he was when he entered mine. On the desk was a carton of Delicados cigarettes. In my little closet, there was a bottle of coffee liqueur and another of plum liqueur that I myself had made. In San Cristóbal, in those days, in the country, all around, there were plum trees and they would send me ground coffee from home. And he left really worried. He also saw how the seminarians were relating with girls. And I don't think he liked that at all. Of course, he came from a very medieval, traditional diocese -- León, Guanajuato, where he had been a seminary professor. But I never gave up on my attempt to change things. Well, as a young man, what could I change? It was just a dream. The daily practices of the school seemed to me -- pardon the expression but it is the only one that captures that reality -- stupid. I came from the capitol, from a very happy family, one that for every birthday threw a party with a lot of beer, a lot of ice, a lot of food, many marimbas. I already knew how to dance and had already had my first girlfriend as an adolescent.

And at that age I was already dreaming of going into the jungle with a rifle to change the state of affairs; more so when I heard about Camilo Torres Restrepo, the Colombian priest who after he had tried everything else -- academia, the Church, the Colombian barrios -- could not take it any longer and thought that the only way out was violence, and one day made a revolutionary proclamation and joined the ranks of the National Liberation Army that is still pestering the oligarchy in my beloved Colombia.

But Don Samuel came back from Rome completely changed. Converted from a conservative bishop to a prophet of aggiornamento. The state of affairs in the diocese of San Cristóbal started to change. Most of the priests didn't like their bishop's change of mindset at all and little by little emigrated to other conservative diocese. Samy started to be alone. Then he started to lean on those who understood his position. Progressive Catholics and Protestants joined his pastoral team. It would not be fair to mention them because, as many years have passed, I might forget some of them -- some who are now gone, others who are still in this world in this daily struggle so that the world will be, at least, less inhumane.

He began his pastoral visits to the indigenous towns and communities of Chiapas. And the Catholics from San Cristóbal started to look unfavorably on him. The cathedral was no longer filling up with "well-to-do people", but with indigenous people with their banners and their mutlicolored clothing. And I was fortunate enough to be designated his assistant. "Familiar" is what the seminarian who accompanied the bishop on his pastoral errands was called. We went to many towns to talk to the people, to provide liturgical services to them, but Samy needed a translator.

And he was not satisfied with this. He started to learn tzotzil, and his teacher was a seminarian from San Pedro Chenal’ho, the unforgettable Jacinto Arias, who came to finish theology and then became an anthropologist. A well of wisdom, each year he was loaded with medals for his high qualifications. Well, Samuel learned tsotsil, and then tsel'tal, and then ch’ol, and so many other Mayan languages that were still alive in my homeland, in my datcha, as I like to call Chiapas.

Well, we would go in an old jeep, or on foot, or by horse or mule to visit the towns and communities of Los Altos and the jungle. To go to the places in the jungle one had to walk single file, with a couple of macheteros in front to clear an opening. It was still virgin jungle, as fascinating and seductive as a woman, and not the jungle of sunflowers that it is now. Samuel followed, he went along these paths, along impassable roads where I have no idea how a jeep could get through, or mounted on an animal, but we got to the poorest communities where the inhabitants didn't speak one iota of castilla. That's what we called Castilian Spanish. More precisely: “castía”, as the indigenous people pronounce it. Nothing was left of the image of that conservative, reactionary priest. Samuel, who went to evangelize the indigenous people, was the one who was evangelized, and I along with him. I think I may have gone off the beaten path, but not the bishop. The bishop had to keep to a certain style, since the San Cristóbal society, those who at a certain point called themselves "the real insiders", had fallen out with him. They no longer attended liturgical events at the Cathedral and the diocese continued to shed its conservative priests. But the indigenous people and communities, with their theogony, with their cosmogony, with their mixture of their original religion and the Catholicism that the conquistadores and Europeans colonizers imposed on them -- it still might seem silly to many at this stage of this brutal Latin American history -- were evangelizing the bishop. He was already, for the indigenous people, "jTatik", a word that in several Mayan languages is only used for elders. It means "lord", "father", but not the lord who expropriates them, who excludes them, who rapes their women, who has the right to kick them, but the lord who is friend, brother, their equal, and not the punishing, threatening father, but the loving father, in whom one can trust.

And Samy allowed himself to be loved and his love grew for the indigenous people, who were his personal and pastoral reason for living. I lived high points of my life with him, not only in the church environment. I saw that the Church is not the byzantine, imperial, powerful structure of Rome. I began to discard that hymn that I think they still sing in the Vatican, “Roma, Sancta Roma”. With him, I saw that Rome was the empire, that Rome was the friars, who even in that period of the first half of the 60s, were convinced that learning was best accomplished through corporal discipline and who came from Spain to join an indigenous diocese, and thought that one had to be nasty to indigenous people because they didn't have souls, and they had to be saved from the devil, the sun, the moon, the nahuales that they worshipped and continue to worship, in a syncretism that the bishop immediately understood and absolutely respected. They never understood that in their cosmogony, while worshipping the sun, the moon, and the nahuales, they were worshipping God, that God that is only God if He frees human beings and the cosmos, rational animals, plants and minerals, because, according to the theology of all religions, He is the creator, the maker, and for poor Christians, the liberator of the people.

Long before the Latin American theologians, led by the unforgettable Peruvian Gustavo Gutiérrez, Porfirio Miranda (who discovered that Marxism was already in the Hebrew Bible) and many others, such as the Brazilian, Ecuadorian, Honduran, Chilean and many Mexican bishops brought to birth in the world the so-called liberation theology, which Joseph Ratzinger -- now the conservative Pope Benedict XVI -- defended in his youth, it was already practiced in Chiapas by jTatik and many of his collaborators. The naming of Samuel Ruiz García as bishop of Chiapas was a watershed moment. At that time I was completely convinced that I should be a priest to become indigenous with the indigenous, poor with the poor, brother among brothers, god with God, nature with Nature, all with the All. Samy and the indigenous people were my most decisive teachers. Teachers of truth who taught me the true word. Who made me an atheist with respect to that God that only ate in the homes of the lords, while the poor died of curable diseases, lived a life of hunger, and whose newborn children died of a little cold.

Therefore I understood and sympathized completely with the indigenous uprising of 1994, because neither those on the Right nor those on the Left understood and I think they still don't understand, that change cannot be imposed. Samuel understood it well. Obviously, in that conservative bishop who came to San Cristóbal and was consecrated in the cathedral with luxurious ostentation, the seed of liberation was coming. He became a servant of his people, through his comforting, his understanding, one among the poor who were his equals, because he had lived in much poverty.

And I had the opportunity to drink from that indigenous wisdom, and strengthen my rebelliousness. I am now convinced that rebelliousness is more revolutionary than revolution itself, that if it only remains in ideological egotism (for me, ideology is pure fascism), it is doomed to terrible failure, because in order to change society, men, women, people have to change first. Change judgements and attitudes as Samy changed, thanks to his teachers the tsotsiles, the tsel’tales, the ch’oles, the toj’olabales, the cak’chiqueles among other Mayan groups.

Before the successor to Don Lucio Torreblanca y Tapia was designated by the Vatican, the insiders, the powerful built on the left side of the San Cristóbal cathedral an episcopal "palace" --sumptuous on average for the colonial residences of the city -- for the new bishop who, to the people's good fortune and the disappointment of the powerful, was Samuel Ruiz García, a human being who found himself, became reconciled to himself, and found himself with others, with the poorest of the poor, and he became poor with the poor, like Francis of Assisi.

I had to sleep in that palace because our trips were in the early morning, whether in the jeep to certain places where we either had to keep driving around until we got to a community, or we had to abandon the vehicle to climb on a mule or a horse and keep going. We ate what the poor ate, which was not very abundant nor very rich in vitamins, protein and minerals, because the people and communities were, and continue to be, on the hillsides, on the crests of the mountains, which were the places they went to when they were displaced by the expropriating Spaniards who took possession of the best lands in the Valle de Jovel, from which milk and honey flowed, and even there went Samy, as Luchita, the sister who never abandoned him and was with him until her death -- a death greatly mourned by me -- taught me to call him. We never brought itacate (provisions), nor crozier, nor knapsack; we wore shoes only because the land was very rough and there was no sense in ending up with some injury to the sole of the feet.

And both jTatik and I integrated into the community. Many of the priests, the teachers, the rector of the seminary didn't understand that. The life the bishop led was completely misunderstood by most of the clergy in the diocese. Only a few understood, such as Aurelio Zapata, the priest who also became poor with the poor after spending a good part of his life in academic activity at the seminary. And I am allowing myself to mention Aurelio because he was my teacher, my brother, and my friend until his death, committed body and soul to the peasants and the indigenous people. I think he was one of the few who understood Samy, and he was also demonized, as jTatik was.

After the Council, and with a renewed bishop, a practitioner of the yet to be born liberation theology, things started to change in Chiapas. The consciousness of the peasants and the indigenous people began to be raised. Consciousness that they were being exploited by the landowners, by the atajadoras (a group of ladina women who went to the crossroads in the morning to cut off groups of indigenous who were going down to San Cristóbal with their hens, their chickens, their eggs, their vegetables, and would physically snatch what they were carrying and would pay them whatever they -- the women -- wanted to pay and even rob them on many occasions).

Don Samuel started to participate very actively with the progressive institutional Church in Latin America, both individually and in the multinational organizations like the Latin American Bishops' Conference, where he played a primordial role in boosting the liberation theologians and then indigenous theology, infinitely more radical than liberation theology because it was evangelical.

Living with my beloved Samy has been an enlivening, educational, gratifying, amicable, friendly, communal, and fulfilling experience in my now long life. I am completely certain that he marked my life as a rebel. He taught me to differentiate between the imperial, monarchical church and the excluded church, the church of the poor, the wretched, the indigent, the true universal church that excludes nobody -- not the agnostics, not the atheists, not the Buddhists, not the Jainists, not the Muslims, not the Jews, not the autochthonous religions, not the syncretic religions, not nature, fully evangelical, because Jesus makes no exceptions of people, although he does prefer the weak, the expropriated, the terminally ill, those who are called sinners -- although I am sure that the only "sin" that exists in Christian -- truly Christian -- ethics, is injustice. And he taught me that the only Leftist is the Samaritan...

Samuel Ruiz García is now retired in Querétaro, but he contributed in a decisive way to the emergence of a new Church, the Church of the poor that, unfortunately has ever less to do with the clerical structure of the Vatican. And that reminds me of an anecdote of the unforgettable Hélder Cámara, from that era, Archbishop of Olinda and Recife. When he went to visit the Pope on an occasion, his so-called ad limina visit, the Pope spoke of his concern that Europe was distancing itself from the "Church". And Dom Hélder took the liberty of suggesting to him, more or less: Holy Father. Leave the Vatican and make your headquarters in the poorest parish of Europe. Then you will see how the Europeans will turn back to the Church.

Well, Samuel is part of my life, of my formation as a human being, as a journalist, as someone who is concerned about and struggling for a less inhumane world and with the dream of a socialism that is not impossible, even though the conservative Church supports dictatorial governments, neoliberal governments, and condemns and demonizes liberation theologians and populist movements.

From Samuel I learned that a God who is not the liberator of the expropriated, the oppressed, the excluded, cannot be god. He is an idol made of clay.

Burke Lecture: Bishop Ruiz: The Pursuit of Justice

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