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Bishop to continue Ruiz’s work

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

“I will continue the line of Samuel Ruiz and Raúl Vera,” Felipe Arizmendi said, as he was installed as bishop of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico, on May 1. “But each person is different. I come not to compete or to destroy, but to complement what is needed.”

Arizmendi, previously bishop of the neighboring diocese of Tapachula, has a reputation for being theologically conservative but socially progressive. He consistently defended Ruiz García when he was under attack from longtime nuncio Girolamo Prigione and not a few of Mexico’s bishops. The initial reaction of the diocesan team of San Cristóbal at his appointment had been one of cautious relief. They welcomed his inaugural message.

Addressing the indigenous members of his new flock, whom he identified as two-thirds of the total, Arizmendi said: “The church loves you sincerely. It does not abandon you or betray you. Have no fear. My commitment in Christ is to be with you and to continue the work for your social advancement and evangelical liberation, enabling you to be the subjects of your history and agents of your own liberation. I ask the Holy Spirit to give me a heart like the heart God the Father gave to St. Mary of Guadalupe, our Mother, to be a living presence of God’s preferential love for you.”

Recalling the recent apology of Pope John Paul II for past violations by Christians of the rights of others, Arizmendi said: “We ask God’s pardon for the many times that Christians have denied the gospel and, yielding to the logic of force, have violated the rights of ethnic groups and peoples, doing violence to their cultures and their religious traditions. We will continue to fight, always using peaceable means, to have your just rights recognized within the framework of the other races and cultures that form our country. We must continue the search so that ours will be an inculturated, autochthonous church. As we, the bishops of Chiapas, said on New Year’s Day 1994, we understand the reasons of those who rose in arms, and we support their just demands. There can be no true and lasting peace as long as grave injustices, marginalization and exclusion persist.”

In words reminiscent of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s appeal to the Salvadoran army in his homily the Sunday before he was assassinated, Arizmendi next appealed to the army: “Let the Mexican army respect human rights and the limits imposed by the constitution, and let no one be deceived by those who encourage the formation of paramilitary organizations. Do not accumulate more arms, and never raise your hand against your neighbor. Keep in mind the divine command: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ ”

The condemnation of paramilitary groups is particularly significant in view of the fact that only a few days earlier the federal government, under pressure from national and international groups, had created a special unit in the attorney general’s office to investigate paramilitary groups in Chiapas accused of killing at least a thousand men, women and children in indigenous communities. Investigations by the Augustin Pro Juarez human rights center indicate that at least 12 paramilitary groups, armed with high-powered weapons, are operating in the state.

The future of the great experiment undertaken by Ruiz and his pastoral associates remains uncertain. The words of his successor in his inaugural address indicate that no radical retrenchment is likely in the near future, that the experiment in inculturation is not about to suffer the fate of the Chinese rites, developed by the Jesuits in the 17th century and vetoed by Rome. Nor should it be forgotten that there exist in the Catholic church today trends and forces that encourage its continuation. The calls for inculturation at the recent synods for Africa and Asia are particularly significant. They suggest that in the not distant future we can expect experiments in other parts of the world similar to -- and perhaps more radical than -- that of the diocese of San Cristóbal.

Meanwhile, Ruiz from a base in Mexico City has committed himself to promote peace with justice and dignity in Mexico. Both Ruiz and Bishop Raúl Vera López, expected to be Ruiz’s successor but instead named to head the Saltillo diocese in northeastern Mexico, have frequently over the past year expressed their alarm at the progressive militarization of the state of Chiapas, warning that continuation of that policy would be disastrous. As Ruiz took his formal leave from the diocese to enter retirement, he repeated his assurances that Chiapas would continue at the top of his concerns. Since Ruiz remains healthy and energetic, the indigenous of Chiapas will continue to have an advocate both in Mexico and internationally.

Gary MacEoin is available at gmaceoin@cs.com

National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2000