Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo, known, affectionately, throughout the world, as Don Sergio, was as beloved by the people of Cuernavaca as he was scorned by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. He would be 103 this year. In 1959 he consecrated Cuernavaca's cathedral -- now world famous not because it was built during the time of Cortez nor because it's open chapel is the oldest Spanish building in the western hemisphere, but because of the man responsible for its consecration as a cathedral.
Sergio Mendez Arceo put the diocese of Cuernavaca on the map and made a simple and plain cathedral the most visited spot in Morelos. Never intended to be a cathedral the church of the Ascension of the Virgin Mary was the interim cathedral for many years; its walls covered with the usual niches and religious figures. In preparation for its consecration as a cathedral Don Sergio ordered it stripped to the bare walls. He often said that without "clutter" the church could get down to the basics of what Christian life is all about in a simple and austere cathedral. Don Sergio’s Cathedral’s elegance thus lies in simplicity, reflecting the vision and philosophy of the man – the importance of Christ’s ministry to the poor and His message of social justice. From his pulpit Don Sergio taught those values to overflow crowds each Sunday. In his walk he lived them. Depending upon one’s political point of view he became known as the “Bishop to the Poor” or “The Red Bishop.”
Upon his death in 1992, as the community mourned, the Sergio Mendez Arceo Foundation was founded to continue his legacy. Each year it awards a human rights prize to a Mexican individual and group recognized as continuing Don Sergio's work.
Last Thursday the 2011 award winners were announced. The group prize goes to The Defenders of the Rio Verde in Paso de la Reina, Oaxaca; Norma Librada Ledezma Ortega of Chihuahua receives the individual prize. The awards ceremony will be on the Cathedral grounds, May 7th. It will be preceded by a forum titled Challenges Faced by Contemporary Social Movements.
Before voting for the award recipients this year, members of the jury heard an overview of Mexican human rights issues. José Sotelo, a political analyst and collaborator of Don Sergio's, told us something that newspaper readers should enjoy hearing and many of us will find true. "Don Sergio said one of his ways of praying is reading the newspaper, 'because that is where I find the will of God -- what He wants me to do. It is in the dailyness of our life where I, on a daily basis, find what I should do.'"
Indeed, Don Sergio's homilies were like going to a class in current events. I have no doubt that were he alive, his homily this week would have been about Javier Sicilia, a man on whose shoulders has descended a tragic burden and responsibility. He has had the unnatural tragedy of burying his young assassinated son, Juan Francisco. While still mourning that loss, he has taken the leadership and responsibility which has descended onto his shoulders.
A recipient of national literary awards as a poet, Javier is also a columnist in Proceso, Mexico’s prominent news weekly. Some readers admire his skillful use of poetic language; others await his opinions of and explanations for social issues confronting Mexico. I, and many others, read him for both. His points of view are summed up in his signature last paragraph of each article or talk he gives -- it begins with "Además opino" followed by a listing of the causes in which he participates as an activist. Like daily lists we make, causes are only removed when resolved. Professor Sicilia speaks to young and old, rich and poor, the left and right. He understands the several Mexicos and is a bridge between social classes.
Javier Sicilia spent two hours Wednesday at Los Pinos with Felipe Calderon and was back in Morelos in time to lead the largest demonstration in Cuernavaca’s history. Not afraid to speak truth to power, and with the ability to do so, Professor Sicilia reported that the most important thing Felipe Calderon said in their meeting "and this speaks well of him, is that he is in agreement with saying he has made mistakes, I don't know which ones he recognizes, . . . my interpretation is that he is repentant; not of combating, or of the war, but of the manner in which he did it -- the precipitation with which he did it," [Reforma, April 8, 2011, page 14].
Javier Sicilia's has the ingredients to be a new national movement, which can pull Mexico out of despair and give voice to the voiceless. In addition to being a published poet, journalist, and social activist, he has a following as a university professor, a pacifist, and Catholic lay theologian (founder and director of Ixtus magazine). He is bringing into the forefront that which is obvious, but not spoken about in public forums. Drug addiction should be treated as a health issue just as alcohol and tobacco addiction, drug trafficking will not go away by decree, cartels must commit to a code of ethics, the government must treat prisoners in ways which respect their human rights; neither side should involve civil society in its struggles. He questions why Mexico should be tearing itself apart to protect the USA from the scourge of drugs when the US will not restrict its demand, nor the flow of weapons to Mexico.