Monday, June 23, 2014
Arturo Lona Reyes, Bishop of the Poor
June 23, 2014
A few weeks ago during the tours I commonly make particularly on weekends, especially in the Oaxacan Isthmus, I had the pleasure and especially the honor to interview the Bishop Emeritus of Tehuantepec, Arturo Lona Reyes.
In 1952, at 27, he was ordained a priest and in August 1971 he was consecrated Bishop of Tehuantepec by Paul VI. He resigned from that position in 2001. He has devoted his life to the disadvantaged, which earned him the "Don Sergio Méndez Arceo" National Human Rights Award in recognition of a whole life committed to the defense and promotion of human rights of the poor and the indigenous.
Bishop Lona and other later prelates -- Don Sergio Méndez Arceo, Samuel Ruiz and Raúl Vera -- are, as any Mexican would say, "a blessing from God" because all of them raised, as did Hidalgo with the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the banner of liberation theology, a movement born of the reform that Vatican II represented. That theology presumed a significant change in how priests in Latin America saw their pastoral work.
For championing this school of thought within the Mexican Catholic Church, as well as the proposals that emerged from the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM) first in Medellin, Colombia and then Puebla, Mexico, Arturo Lona has been the victim of several attacks against him and defamation for making the powers-that-be uncomfortable. There were pressures of various kinds for him to sign his resignation from the leadership of the Diocese of Tehuantepec. Fortunately however, he didn't allow himself to be beaten, even by powerful groups within the church in Mexico itself.
There are those who say he is "to the left of the Father" as if he were responding to the commands of a political party. No, they are wrong. Bishop Lona is not a militant in any party. Yes, he is a distinguished activist of that movement that was called the "Church of the Poor". He is answerable to the poor, he works with them, is on the lookout for them, for the indigenous whom a political system here in Oaxaca has kept living in eternal poverty. And indeed he has been a serious critic of that political system because he has not only been a censor of PRI governments, but of others when he has noticed that they are acting the same way against the poor, when they are acting unjustly.
In 2006, he strongly criticized the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) for the way it addressed a conflict then. He criticized burning buses, blocking streets and roads. In 2006, he participated in a mediation table for teachers with whom he was not allied. He called on them to work with a sense of vocation and "not for a paycheck every fifteen days."
As well as being a spiritual guide in the faith, Arturo Lona Reyes has been a guiding light for the people who have been manipulated and lied to by those in power. Exactly three years ago, he warned the Oaxacan people, stating that "the defeated party isn't just sitting around; it's under the surface. The sea is seemingly peaceful, with small waves, but the surf, the internal waves are those that cause disasters. There is surf in politics."
Still, he managed to summon Governor Gabino Cuéa who he asked to pay special attention to the state's economy and "not to neglect real education" and to really look out for the poorest to lift them from the ancestral backwardness at the same time -- a smart observer of national and local politics. When the coalition government had barely taken off, he noted that the losing politicians were jumping on Cuéa, and properly stated that "sometimes the criticism of this governor who has only been in six months and is already producing results, is unfair. He and his colleagues are lifting a backlog of more than 70 years." "Let's have patience," he begged.
This man who has walked our lands is still a humble man who continues to celebrate Mass for the poor, as when I saw him in Jaltepec de Candayoc, in the Mixe area. He goes on offering comfort and caring to the poor, to the indigenous, he goes on working because of them and for them, but at the same time in his homily, he asks his flock to reject lies and pretense. At that open air Mass, in which I was able to participate, I also saw the affection and love that the people of the isthmus have for their bishop, for their tata.
Arturo Lona Reyes is a native of Aguascalientes but we could say he was born here among the poor because he has always been here in Oaxaca, in the neighboring communities of Chiapas, where there is also poverty, hunger, and disease.
The bishop, who was president of the Comisión Episcopal de Indígenas ["Bishops' Commission on the Indigenous"] in 1972 and founder of the Centro de Derechos Humanos Tepeyac de Tehuantepec, is and has been a "blessing" because as Agustín Basave wrote in an article titled “Sicilia y los católicos de izquierda”, "there is courage, never capitulation, but the guiding principle is not hate but generosity. The best representatives of this school are sorts of missionaries of hope. They have the spiritual strength that allows them to resist all temptations, as well as those of surrender and revenge. So they are not co-opted by power or anger." Henceforth that includes Lona, this father, this priest to whom I heard an istmeña plead to Heaven at the end of that Mass, "May the Lord in His majesty bless, keep, and protect you."