by Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino (English translation by Rebel Girl)
At 86, Mons. Samuel Ruiz García, the bishop who was from Chiapas (Mexico), successor -- several centuries later -- to Bartolomé de Las Casas, whose witness and defense of the original inhabitants of those lands were a source of inspiration to him, has left us.
In April 1968, there was a meeting in Melgar (Colombia) about the missionary task of the Church. It was a landmark on the road to the Medellin Conference (August-September 1968). The meeting was organized by the Department of Missions of CELAM, headed by Mons. Gerardo Valencia (pastor of a diocese -- Buenaventura, Colombia -- with a large population of African descent). A young bishop, Samuel Ruiz, participated actively in it. John XXIII and the Council, which he attended, had awakened in him, a man of classical and academic training, concerns that had led him to see in a new way the crude reality of poverty and exclusion of the indigenous to whom he had been sent as pastor in 1959.
But Melgar helped him to consider things from a Latin American and liberating perspective. Later, and on various occasions, he would evoke, in a simple way, what this meeting, lively and fertile, had meant to him (and in truth, for all of us who shared that experience). After analyzing the social and ecclesial reality of that time and considering it from the faith perspective, the conclusions of Melgar, in reference to the indigenous people, end by expressing the hope that "the presence of Christ, the Word Incarnate, in the peoples of Latin America and the action of the Spirit in them" would make way for "a springtime that revitalizes the Church in Latin America in this moment of change and historic option."
Most of the participants in this missionary meeting were in Medellin and contributed to the Conference's gathering many insights from the conclusions of Melgar. Samuel gave a lecture at the beginning of the Conference of Medellin in which he stressed one of them. He asked for "special consideration of the situation of the indigenous people on the Latin American continent", and warned that if this did not happen "centuries would continue to accumulate on this shameful problem that could well be called the methodological failure of the evangelizing action of the Church of Latin America."
Samuel tenaciously and creatively faced the situation that he denounced in that continental conclave. More than 45 years of his life were devoted to the diverse and numerous indigenous population of his diocese. He did it with warmth and friendship, understanding and valuing their cultures, learning their languages, defending their rights, putting forward a gospel of love and justice, ordaining indigenous men as married deacons to serve their people, sensitive to the suffering of secularly mistreated and marginalized people. For all of it, he always worked in teams; he surrounded himself with lay people, nuns and priests with whom he studied the human and social situation in which they found themselves and, in diocesan meetings, evaluated the pastoral projects they shared. It was undoubtedly one of the richest pastoral experiences that has been done on the continent in this field.
Today, however, solidarity with the poor and insignificant cannot be limited to the (always necessary) immediate assistance. It should, at the same time, point out and denounce the causes of the situation in which they are living. Medellin raised this firmly and Samuel wasn't afraid to do it. And, as has happened so often, this won him misunderstandings, hostility, and, at times, mistreatment. In spite of the pain of this situation, Samuel lived as a witness for peace, but with the conviction that that could not be established except on the basis of social justice, respect for human rights, and equality in diversity.
In 1979, Samuel convened a meeting on "Indigenous movements and liberation theology" in Chiapas, consistent with his choices and concerns. Indigenous leaders, bishops, pastoral agents, and theologians from different countries on the continent and the different regions of Mexico attended. The meeting started with reports on the social and pastoral situation in each place. After that came an interesting theological reflection on a current theme. The years had made it ripen, but they didn't stop being first steps in a very important matter.
If Samuel's greatest devotion was to his area and the people who called him "jTatic" (father, ancient one) with affection and appreciation, his work extended to his country and even beyond it. His generous welcome in Chiapas of Guatemalan refugees who were leaving behind a situation of abuse and death proves it, as well as, once he was emeritus bishop, being an active member and a representative of international solidarity and human rights advocacy associations, especially in Central America. Let's add the role he played, committed to justice as the basis of peace -- mediation not always well understood by everyone, in the difficult moment of the uprising of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.
Don Samuel was a free man, of deep gospel freedom. At his funeral, another great pastor, Mons. Raul Vera, said of him: "Truthfully we see that until the end of his life he remained an authentic son of God through his work for peace, which is born of justice and love."