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New bishop named for Chiapas


Moving swiftly to replace Chiapas bishop Samuel Ruiz García, Pope John Paul II has tapped a prelate from a neighboring diocese with a reputation for sympathy for Ruiz but opposition to the armed Zapatista uprising.

The appointment of Bishop Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel, 59, to Ruiz’s San Cristóbal de Las Casas diocese was announced by the Vatican March 31. He will be installed May 1.

Arizmendi Esquivel is the current secretary general of CELAM, a federation of Latin American bishops’ conferences. He has also served as chairman of the Mexican bishops’ commission for indigenous peoples and is a member of the Mexican bishops’ Commission for Peace and Reconciliation in Chiapas.

Ruiz is known as an advocate of the indigenous peoples of Mexico’s southernmost diocese, who make up most of the population there. He has called on the church to pursue full inculturation in indigenous settings, including the possibility of married couples acting as priests (NCR, Dec. 10, 1999).

Ruiz has angered large landowners in Chiapas as well as the state and federal governments by his strong advocacy of economic and political justice. Some have accused him of fomenting the armed Zapatista rebellion that began in 1994.

Ruiz turned 75 in November and tendered his resignation in accord with canon law. Though the pope has elected to keep many bishops in place well beyond the mandatory retirement age, Vatican watchers had expected him to move quickly on a successor for the controversial Chiapas bishop.

Until recent months, that successor had been expected to be Dominican Raúl Vera López, the coadjutor bishop the pope appointed to Chiapas in 1995. Instead, Vera López, who emerged as a close friend and ally of Ruiz, was named bishop of the Saltillo diocese in northeastern Mexico in January, in a move widely interpreted as a desire to temper what the Vatican sees as Ruiz’s confrontational approach.

When reports first began to surface in 1999 that conservative interests were working to prevent Vera López from succeeding Ruiz, Arizmendi Esquivel joined a number of Mexican bishops who spoke in defense of both men. “We reject the bastard interests (los intereses bastardos) of those who want to interfere in the succession of Don Samuel,” he said.

Arizmendi Esquivel has served as bishop of Tapachula, a Chiapas city on the border with Guatemala, for the past nine years. He is known as a moderate.

“I am conscious of the fact that I’m not going … to compete with or destroy, but complement,” Arizmendi Esquivel said. “I value the illustrious 40-year episcopal commitment of Msgr. Samuel Ruiz.”

Arizmendi Esquivel said in a mid-1998 interview that the only way to bring peace to Chiapas would be for the Mexican government to assume responsibility for the needs of the people “and promote peace, development and justice.”

Unlike Ruiz, who has at times expressed sympathy for the largely indigenous Zapatista rebels, Arizmendi Esquivel has been critical. He supported the Mexican bishops’ 1998 decision to withdraw from the official Chiapas mediating commission. “The government clearly expressed its distrust, while the Zapatistas never gave clear support” to the commission, he said.

In a 1998 Christmas message, Arizmendi Esquivel said, “If we all accepted the heart of Christ and lived according to his word, Chiapas would be different; Mexico would be different; the world would change.

“The poor would live in dignity with well-paid work, without anguish and vices. The rich would avoid even the smallest injustice and would share their goods generously,” he said. If everyone followed Christ, “those who govern would spend their lives in service, in a simple and unselfish way.”

Ruiz expressed confidence that Arizmendi Esquivel would continue his pastoral work among indigenous communities and said the new bishop is committed to the peace process.

“With concrete actions he has expressed his brotherhood with us, walking in unity to respond to the destiny that the Lord God has delivered to our Chiapas,” Ruiz said. He said he would leave San Cristóbal to live in the nearby town of Queretaro after Arizmendi Esquivel takes over.

Born May 1, 1940, in Chiltepec, Arizmendi Esquivel studied at the seminary in Toluca and at the University of Salamanca, Spain, earning degrees in dogmatic theology and in liturgy.

Arizmendi Esquivel said he would step down from his role as secretary-general of CELAM to devote himself full time to his new diocese. Ordained in 1963 and named bishop of Tapachula nine years ago, he will be officially the 40th bishop of San Cristóbal, although three predecessors never arrived there. The diocese, founded in 1539, is one of the oldest in the Americas.

Wire services contributed to this report.

National Catholic Reporter, April 14, 2000