Another great man died last month. He was known by many names, El Caminante (The Walker), Tatic (Little Father in Tzotzil), Bishop of the Poor, and the more formal honorific, Don Samuel. Bishop Emeritus Samuel Ruiz Garcia, 86, of the diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, died January 24th -- the 51st anniversary of his arrival as Bishop in San Cristobal. Outside of Chiapas, he is best known for his role as an intermediary in the peace process and negotiations begun in 1994 between the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and the federal government. Inside Chiapas he is deeply mourned by his beloved indigenous people as The Bishop of the Poor.
Don Samuel was born and raised in religiously conservative Guanajuato. As a promising young priest/theologian he obtained a Ph.D. in Rome and at the precocious age of 35 was appointed Bishop of the then Diocese of Chiapas. Four years later, still a conservative bishop, he attended all sessions of the Second Vatican Council. By 1968 he experienced a conversion, or as he referred to it, “my road to Damascus experience", as he blended the findings of Vatican II, incipient Liberation Theology and his experiences with his largely indigenous Maya population. “The people of Chiapas transformed Ruiz into the man God was calling him to be -- a fearless prophet, an aggressive shepherd, a man of peace.” (Huffington Post, January 25, 2011) Don Samuel earned the name El Caminante by traveling, often by foot, to the most difficult to reach of the villages in his diocese. An amateur ham radio operator, it became his “handle.”
Four hundred years after indigenous advocate Fray Bartolome de las Casas -- second bishop of Chiapas -- Ruiz still found the origin of poverty and oppression in a legacy of racist and economic domination born in the conquest and still exercised by the Chiapas oligarchy over the indigenous population. Don Samuel, one of the presenters at the 1968 Conference of Latin American Bishops in Medellin, Colombia, spoke of what was then precedent setting indigenous pastoral work. At this meeting the bishops addressed the tremendous shortage of clergy in Latin America, a shortage historically filled by Irish and Spanish priests. Mexico's constitution did not allow the inclusion of foreign clergy.
Mexican bishops, Ruiz among them, tried to meet this shortage by encouraging the creation of Christian Base Communities headed by lay members. These base communities read the Bible together, often comparing their plight to that of the liberation of the Hebrew people described in Exodus. The inception of these Communities coincided with the spread of the Theology of Liberation and its emphasis on speaking “truth to power.” Theologians of liberation believe the church should be the bearer of that prophetic voice today and should speak out on behalf of those whose voice is never heard by those in positions of power.
The Tatic frequently expressed his long-frustrated hope to ordain a Maya Indigenous man as a priest. In Maya thought a single man, without a woman and family at his side, is an incomplete person and cannot be entrusted with important duties within the community. In 2000 when Don Samuel was forced, by age, to retire, there were only 58 priests, 100 missionaries, and 173 nuns in his diocese. Nonetheless he was able to extend pastoral services to a population of 1.5 million grouped in more than 2,000 villages. He accomplished this Herculean task by embracing Vatican II's reinstatement of the office of permanent deacon and, taking into account the Maya importance given to the married couple. After study, service and examination, Don Samuel ordained 411 married men, wives at their side, as permanent indigenous deacons. Highly criticized by conservative elements in the church, the Vatican opened an investigation to determine whether Bishop Ruiz had, as accused, ordained deaconesses. The results of that investigation are still secret. In 2002, succeeding Bishop Felipe Arizmendi was ordered by the Vatican to dismantle the permanent deacon training program. His request to the Vatican to re-instate the program has been denied.
When new priests arrived in his diocese Don Samuel required them to experience poverty by living with a poor family for an extended period of time. With the idea that God is universal and has acted among all peoples he also asked them to respect and to learn as much as possible about Maya religion,
In 1993, Bishop Ruiz was the first recipient of the annual Don Sergio Mendez Arceo National Human Rights Prize. In past years, as a board member of the foundation that awards the prize, I've been fortunate to spend time with the esteemed Bishop of the Poor. I attended the mass held within hours of his death at the CUC (Dominican Center) in Mexico City. There I had the unexpected honor to serve as a pallbearer. After the Mexico City mass the casket was transported to Chiapas where multiple masses were held and tens of thousands of indigenous walked by the open casket to honor their Tatic. Sub-comandate Marcos emerged from a two-year self-imposed silence to publish a written homage to the Bishop. Despite their frequent criticism of him during his lifetime, many high-ranking politicians and leaders of the church were in attendance at the various masses held in Don Samuel's honor.