Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A shockingly good Good Friday

We frequently participate in recurring events despite the fact that we know how they will transpire.  We go to favorite Shakespeare plays knowing the whole story in advance.  The same could be said about the passion plays enacted throughout the world last week. We attend knowing how it turns out. 

Holy Week's well-attended church services feature familiar hymns and scripture readings. There are rarely any changes.   We find comfort in knowing, interest in understanding things we hadn't been aware of before, and pride in noticing subtle changes.  Very occasionally there is a major change in the program and it sticks in our mind.  Such was the case thirty years ago at Good Friday's mass held in Cuernavaca's cathedral -- an event now honored each year.

On April 17, 1981, Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo entered the cathedral sanctuary from the courtyard of the 16th century monastery, and stopped at the intersection of the aisles as was his custom.  From this vantage he told his congregation that the Good Friday mass, about to begin, might last three or four hours.  Recognizing that some might not have that amount of time available to spend with him, he asked that those people leave.  He said the doors would be locked and once locked, those inside would not be allowed to leave until the ceremony was over. Those who were late would not be allowed to enter.  Don Sergio told us that access to restrooms would be available but added that sneaking off to the restroom would not be a way to leave the cathedral. All exits would be locked.  He didn't have to worry about word getting out--1981 was well before twitter, facebook or even cell phones.

Some people did leave.  Only when the doors had been locked did he tell us he was going to carry out an excommunication ceremony.  I had not been to one previously nor have I been to one since.  

The bishop talked about the severity of excommunication, what those who were excommunicated would have to do to resume communion with the Church, and what would befall those who participated in the sacrament of communion while excommunicated. 

The liturgy was indeed long, and finally after a couple of hours Bishop Mendez Arceo proceeded to excommunicate all torturers in the Diocese of Cuernavaca -- the only area over which he held authority, and whose boundaries are the same as those of the State of Morelos.  He decreed that anyone who tortured another human being was hereby excommunicated -- any type of torturing, be it of prisoners or family violence.   He proclaimed "Torture is one of the most serious offenses against the lives, integrity, and dignity of the least of our brethren.  It is especially egregious when committed by the authorities, charged  to protect, promote, and contribute to the life and dignity of citizens, using  the very means of force the public gives them to ensure citizen safety and respect.  Torture is a grave betrayal of the confidence which the people invest in their authorities."

He proceeded to further stun his congregation by excommunicating all people who are aware of torturing going on, could stop it, and chose to do nothing.  Without naming names, we in the congregation knew he had just excommunicated the Morelos governor, municipal presidents, and members of the police forces!  It made news around the world.  

Upon his death in 1992, the Sergio Mendez Arceo Foundation was founded to continue his legacy and promote the cause of human rights.  Each year since, the foundation has given an award that has grown in national prestige based on the work of its recipients.  The awards ceremony is held on a Saturday close to the anniversary of the excommunication ceremony. This year it will be May 7.  

A morning forum, Challenges Faced by Contemporary Social Movements, will start at 9:30 am in a meeting room accessed through the 16th century monastery on the cathedral grounds. The morning meeting is followed by lunch provided for all participants.  

At 3:30 pm the awards ceremony will be held in the open chapel, the oldest standing Spanish building in the western hemisphere.  2011 winners are The Defenders of the Rio Verde in Paso de la Reina, Oaxaca, and Norma Librada Ledezma Ortega of Chihuahua.  Certificates will be presented to prize winners by 2010 awardees.  Speakers in the forum and at the awards ceremony are nationally and internationally known and respected spokespeople for human rights. 

There is no charge for participation in the forum, for lunch, or or the awards ceremony.  It is a wonderful opportunity to gain first hand knowledge of human rights issues, meet those who are actively working on their behalf, gain an insight into the legal recognition and guarantees of human rights as well as being able to visit parts of the cathedral normally not open to visitors.  It is a compound included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as Ruta de los Conventos.  I hope to see you there. 

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