Thirty-one years ago April 17 fell on Friday of Holy Week. Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo led the Good Friday Mass. Sitting in a pew in Cuernavaca’s cathedral that day I couldn't foresee the long lasting effect his words would have.
Don Sergio, as he was affectionately known, was comfortable in his setting, a sanctuary he had designed. And he was comfortable with his congregation; he had been their bishop for almost thirty years.
Though the cathedral building had been completed in 1552, Mendez Arceo led the remodeling of the sanctuary with tasteful mid-twentieth century modernity. 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. His thinking was very much in tune with the cathedral’s original Franciscan design. With changes to the interior, Mendez Arceo transformed the old sanctuary into a liturgically correct cathedral for contemporary needs.
Likewise he was in tune with contemporary social needs.
He was a leader in Latin America's contribution to world-wide Christianity, the Theology of Liberation. It's a theological model based heavily on the books of the Old Testament in which the prophets so frequently tell their kings that what they were doing was evil and offensive to God.
Mendez Arceo, like other theologians of liberation, believed that it is the role of the Church to speak out on behalf of those whose voice is rarely heard -- especially the poor and the oppressed.
For his followers and admirers he was a Bishop of the Poor. For his detractors he was the Red Bishop of Cuernavaca. Yet all knew that he always treated liturgy with utmost respect and followed cannon law to the letter.
Detractors and admirers alike were stunned by what he did thirty-one years ago today at that Good Friday Mass. Before walking the aisle to the altar area Don Sergio took the microphone, welcomed the congregation, and then told us that he expected the ceremony would last much longer than we had expected -- perhaps three or four hours! He asked anyone who did not have three or four hours to spend with him to please leave because all exits would soon be closed. He told us where the restrooms were located but added that going to the restroom was not going to be a way to slip out of the church building. All access to the outside would be locked. Some people did get up and leave.
Only after the massive doors were bolted shut did he tell us he was going to carry out an excommunication ceremony. I'd never been to one before and have never been to one since. He described the severity of the ceremony, what those to be excommunicated would have to do to return to communion with the Church, and what would befall them if they participated in the sacrament of communion while excommunicated.
He proceeded to excommunicate anyone who tortured another human being in the Diocese of Cuernavaca, the only area over which he held jurisdiction, whether in a government building, the back set of a police car, or in a family home. He mentioned no names and to me his decree seemed to have no teeth -- but that lasted only a few moments.
Then he issued a decree that reverberated throughout Mexico and was heard in Christian circles worldwide. He went on to excommunicate all people in government who knew torturing was occurring, who could stop it, but who chose to do nothing.
The Don Sergio Mendez Arceo Foundation which carries his name honors similar courage in speaking out against abuses and injustices by giving out two human rights prizes each year close to April 17. The 2012 awards will be presented this Friday. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Don Sergio's death as well as the twentieth awarding of the prize.
The group prize will be awarded to Citizens in Support of Human Rights (CADHAC) of Monterrey which offers effective legal assistance to victims of human rights violations.
The individual prize will be given to Javier Sicilia for his work since 1980 on behalf of human rights and being a bridge between social classes. Through poetry, news analysis and theological commentary his voice is heard by sectors of society that normally don't interact with each other.
Friday’s events will start with a Human Rights Forum in the Federal District's Human Rights Commission headquarters at 9:30 a.m. The keynote speaker will be The Reverend José Luis César Pérez Guzmán of the Mexican Methodist Church. The awards themselves will be given out at 4 p.m. at the San Pedro Martir church in Tlalpan, D.F. where Bishop Raul Vera of Saltillo, Coahuila will be one of the speakers. I will be at both the forum and the awards ceremony and will be glad to translate for those needing it. I hope to see you there.
Further details are available at <http://www.fundaciondonsergio.org/esp/inicio/inicio.html>. Round trip transportation from Cuernavaca is available through the Don Sergio Foundation.