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Ruiz prepares diocese of leadership change


Samuel Ruiz García will submit his resignation as bishop of San Cristóbal de las Casas when he reaches the age of 75 Nov. 3. What will happen next is a matter for grave concern not only for the diocese, but for the state of Chiapas and for all Mexico.

Will his policy to treat the indigenous people, who are the vast majority of the people in the diocese, as human beings and full citizens continue? Or will the church revert to its centuries-long alliance with the cattle ranchers and businessmen who also control state politics?

Ruiz has taken great pains to ensure a smooth transition to Raúl Vera López, who was named coadjutor with right of succession in August 1995. For several months the two bishops have been going together to major indigenous communities, including Palenque, famous for its Mayan ruins, and Acteal, where two years ago 45 unarmed persons -- all but nine women and children -- were slaughtered as they sheltered in a church.

The local leaders welcome the bishops by dressing them in the traditional costume of the Tatic, the honorary father of the community. In Acteal the survivors of the massacre, members of a pacifist group known as Las Abejas (“the bees”) led the ritual that symbolized the transfer of responsibility for spiritual leadership from Ruiz to Vera. Scripture readings, hymns, homilies given by each bishop and the eucharistic liturgy followed, and several dozen young adults were admitted to full membership of the community in the sacrament of confirmation.

The entire ceremony was conducted in Tzotzil, except for Vera’s homily. He has acquired enough Tzotzil and Tzeltal, the two most important indigenous languages, to conduct the liturgy in them. Unlike Ruiz, however, his fluency is still limited, so he preaches in Spanish that is translated by an interpreter. He praised the people for continuing to believe in the possibility of justice and peace. What the paramilitaries and the Mexican government had planned as an act of terror, he said, “the value of the gospel has converted into a mysterious force that maintains hope.”

Protests against this program of symbolic transfer of diocesan leadership have appeared in the communications media controlled by the government and local power brokers. Vera, they say, is only coadjutor, and Ruiz is trying to anticipate the pope’s decision by presenting him as already the diocesan bishop. The diocesan authorities have taken the criticism so seriously that they issued an official document quoting the pertinent canon law and insisting that they understand perfectly well that Ruiz is the diocesan bishop and that Vera will be simply a titular bishop until Ruiz’s resignation is accepted.

What is clear from all this maneuvering is that major opposition continues to the policies that have marked Ruiz’s 40 years as bishop. This opposition represents powerful interests in both state and church. Its leaders are the oligarchs of Chiapas who stand to lose privilege and status if the indigenous majority is granted full rights of citizenship. Mexico’s national government also fears the radical change that would result from acceptance of the claims of the indigenous people not only of Chiapas, but of many other Southern states. Finally, there are elements both in the local church and in Rome that reject Ruiz’s interpretation of liberation theology and the preferential option for the poor.

The irony of the situation is that today, as he nears retirement, Ruiz is in a stronger position than at any previous time. In 1993, Papal Nuncio Girolamo Prigione stated publicly that the pope wanted Ruiz to resign. The following year, the “people of reason” (as the elite of San Cristóbal describe themselves) demonstrated outside a church where Ruiz was coming to celebrate the Eucharist. Several hundred well-dressed men and women screamed insults and waved signs reading “Ruiz Antichrist,” “Bishop of the Devil” and “Go to Cuba.”

When in August 1995 Prigione announced that the pope had named Raúl Vega as coadjutor and that “Samuel Ruiz is no longer responsible for the clergy of the diocese,” it looked as if Ruiz had lost. Then a strange thing happened, something for which the only satisfactory explanation so far proposed is that the Holy Spirit intervened. Ruiz and his team promised full cooperation with the new appointee. Vega not only politely rejected all invitations from Ruiz’s enemies to join their camp, but gradually identified himself as in full agreement with Ruiz’s pastoral program. Prigione has disappeared from the scene, and both Ruiz and Vega enjoy excellent relations with his successor, Justo Mullor.

While it is understood that Ruiz will move away from Chiapas once his resignation is accepted (probably in January after a delegation of ecumenical religious leaders from many countries greets him as he marks 40 years as a bishop), he will continue to promote the cause of the poor in Mexico and elsewhere. He is already scheduled to speak at the annual Call to Action conference in Milwaukee Nov. 5-7.

Gary MacEoin (gmaceoin@cs.com) is author of The People’s Church: Bishop Samuel Ruiz of Mexico and Why He Matters.

National Catholic Reporter, October 15, 1999