In visiting the tomb of the late Bishop Samuel Ruiz on Monday, Pope Francis is connecting with a kindred spirit, a famed Mexican pastor and liberation theology pioneer whose passion for the marginalized clearly resonates with a pontiff whose own dream is of a “poor Church for the poor.”
Granted, the Mexican state of Chiapas, far in the country’s south, is several thousand miles from Buenos Aires. Its indigenous people often walk on muddy footpaths, rather than driving on broad avenues, and Mexican culture and history are different from those of Argentina. Despite these differences, the similarities between Ruiz and Francis are plain.
Samuel Ruiz was born in Guanajuato in Central Mexico in 1934. He entered the seminary as a youth, studied philosophy, theology, and scripture in Rome, and was made bishop of Chiapas at age 35.
Given his rapid rise, he might have been expected to advance up the ecclesiastical ladder rather than remaining in Chiapas for 40 years. When he arrived, Ruiz was a product of his time, schooled in pre-Vatican II theology and imbued with the mindset of a Church still feeling the effects of the Mexican revolution and the anti-clericalism of Mexico’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
Early in his tenure, Ruiz set out to visit all settlements in the diocese, traveling by mule. The majority of the people in his diocese were Mayan Indians, similar to those in Guatemala. Over time, he recognized the need for pastoral work to move beyond indoctrination in Spanish and to be conceived in missionary terms.
He learned Tzeltal and Tzotzil, the two indigenous languages most spoken in the diocese. He assembled a pastoral team that trained thousands of catechists, chosen by the local communities. Indigenous deacons were ordained, the Eucharist and other sacraments were celebrated in the local languages, and indigenous cultural elements were incorporated into worship.
His talents were recognized by the Latin American Bishops Conference (CELAM), where he headed the department of missions for several years and delivered a major address to the Medellin conference in 1968. At that meeting, the Latin American bishops proposed guidelines for pastoral work that supplied the categories and vocabulary for liberation theology.
The Mexican revolution asserted a distinct mestizo identity, forged of the union of Europeans and native peoples, a “cosmic race” — a term coined by Mexican writer and philosopher José Vasconcelos — portrayed in the work of the Mexican muralists. However, the actual indigenous, who constitute more than 10 percent of the Mexican population, have been ignored and exploited, nowhere more than in Chiapas.
In 1974, when the governor proposed a National Indigenous Congress intended primarily to be public relations, Church-trained leaders took advantage and turned the meeting into a sounding board for longstanding grievances. At least from that time, Ruiz has been vilified by representatives of the local power structure and sometimes in the national press.
In the 1980s, a small group of Marxist-inspired outsiders began clandestine organizing in the rural areas of Chiapas, taking advantage of leadership development done by the diocese. On Jan. 1, 1994 the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), made up primarily of indigenous people, occupied several towns in Chiapas and issued manifestos.
What drew attention was their style — they wore ski masks — and in particular their pipe-smoking spokesman, “Sub-Comandante Marcos,” whose poetic communiqués were composed on a laptop. The date was not accidental: It was when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect, and it signaled that the Zapatistas saw their movement in national terms.
The actual fighting lasted only two weeks, at which point a truce was arranged. This post-Cold War movement did not aim to seize the national reins of power with arms, but to force the Mexican state to respond to the demands of the people for recognition of their rights.
At that moment, Ruiz had been under pressure within the Church; the papal nuncio, in league with the PRI, had sought to force him to retire. Many organizations in the diocese and elsewhere, including overseas, rallied to Ruiz’s defense.
With the Zapatista crisis, he was the only figure with sufficient trust to mediate between the Zapatistas and the government, and he did so for several years as head of the National Intermediation Commission, which brokered the San Andrés Agreements in 1996. He eventually resigned out of frustration over the government’s lack of goodwill.
Although the Zapatistas fostered a sense of independence in the remote areas where they were strong, and inspired the imagination of the Mexican and international left, the Mexican state opted for a strategy of containment.
Two decades later, the problems of rural Chiapas remain unresolved. Subsistence farming is increasingly unfeasible in the 21st century, and people from Chiapas have migrated elsewhere, including to the United States. The region is affected by drug trafficking and the migration of Central Americans by violent smuggling rings.
Chiapas is one of the “peripheries” that Francis is highlighting with his visit.
Samuel Ruiz retired in 2000. Both he and Pope Francis actively went to the poor and spoke of having been evangelized by them. Ruiz saw his work in missionary terms; the future pope helped CELAM frame the 2007 CELAM Aparecida document in terms of “missionary discipleship.”
Ruiz was a peacemaker, and Francis has used the office of the papacy in peacemaking and reconciliation. In visiting the tomb of Ruiz, Francis is validating his witness and encouraging others to emulate him.
Phillip Berryman, a former Catholic priest, is the author of several books on liberation theology and a professor of Latin American Studies at Temple University.