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Pope stresses solidarity with indigenous

Guatemala City/Mexico City

In his 17th visit to Latin America, John Paul II has issued a ringing statement of solidarity with the region’s indigenous populations, both by canonizing native saints and by endorsing the “legitimate aspirations” of indigenous groups for justice.

In both Guatemala and Mexico, indigenous groups have been at the heart of recent civil conflicts. The violence has divided local Catholic churches, with progressive prelates such as Mexican Bishop Samuel Ruiz García of Chiapas seen as sympathetic to the Zapatista indigenous uprising, while other prelates have taken more pro-government stands.

In Guatemala, some 200,000 people were “disappeared” and killed during the country’s 36-year civil war, including scores of Catholic human rights activists. Mexico has been rocked by conflict since 1994, generating a string of atrocities. In 1997, for example, at Acteal in Chiapas, 45 people were murdered in a church by paramilitary forces.

In addition, the pope has also pursued a more inner-ecclesiastical agenda on this trip, promoting “inculturation,” or the idea that Christianity can be expressed differently using the idiom of the various cultures in which it takes root. During a raucous July 31 canonization of Juan Diego, to whom the Virgin of Guadalupe is said to have appeared in the 16th century, Aztec dancers, conch shells and native rattles electrified the normally staid ritual.

Such liturgical adaptation has long been opposed by traditionalists, who see it as an instance of “syncretism,” or the unacceptable blending of different religious traditions.

The pope set the pro-indigenous tone from his first moments in Latin America.

“I would like to express my appreciation and closeness to the many indigenous peoples,” John Paul said during a Mass in Guatemala City July 30. “The pope does not forget you!”

In that Mass, the pope canonized Br. Pedro de San José de Betancurt, a 17th-century Spaniard who emigrated to Central America and dedicated his life to care of the poor, especially the indigenous.

“You deserve all respect and have the right to fulfill yourselves completely, in justice, integral development and peace,” the pope told the crowd of some 500,000.

It surprised some observers that John Paul made no reference in Guatemala to Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera, murdered in 1998 after a truth commission he led reported that 90 percent of human rights abuses committed during the civil war there were attributable to the military or allied paramilitary groups.

Archbishop Rodolfo Quezada Toruño of Guatemala City, however, invoked Gerardi as an example of the country’s martyrs in his remarks to the pope during the July 30 Mass.

The pro-indigenous theme also marked the two-day Mexican visit. At an airport welcoming ceremony July 30, John Paul praised the “wealth of history and ancestral cultures” in his host country.

During the Juan Diego ceremony, the pope used the most directly political language of the visit.

“The noble task of building a better Mexico, with greater justice and solidarity, demands the cooperation of all. In particular, it is necessary today to support the indigenous peoples in their legitimate aspirations, respecting and defending the values of each ethnic group,” the pope said.

John Paul asked the new saint to “look with favor upon the pain of those who are suffering in body or spirit, on those afflicted by poverty, loneliness, marginalization or ignorance.”

When John Paul proclaimed Juan Diego a saint, 11 dancers in native Aztec costume began to dance their way down a runway approaching the papal riser, while conch shell horns and rattles could be heard throughout the basilica.

Ruiz, whose retirement for reasons of age was swiftly accepted by the Vatican in March 2000, was in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe for the canonization.

John Paul beatified Aug. 1 two Zapotec Indians, Juan Bautista and Jacinto de los Angeles, martyred in 1700. The Nahautl, Zapotec and Mixtec languages, all spoken in the martyrs’ southern hometown of San Francisco Cajonos, were used during the liturgy. Indigenous brass bands from Cajonos and other nearby towns played and a party was held outside the basilica after the Mass.

A pastoral letter by the Mexican bishops released in early July said the ceremonies were a celebration for the Mexican church.

The canonization and beatification “of indigenous brothers fill us with joy, because their recognition on the part of the universal church means they are an example that can help us return to the indigenous roots of our people,” the bishops wrote.

The pope’s outreach to the indigenous was not, however, entirely without controversy.

Some critics alleged that the pope had mixed motives, pointing to the significant defections from Catholicism to Evangelical Protestantism in recent years, which have been especially pronounced in some indigenous regions.

In traditionally Catholic Chiapas, for example, some 14 percent of the population is now Protestant. In Guatemala, the hemorrhaging has been even worse, as some 25 percent of the country has deserted the Catholic church.

In that sense, some believe Catholic officials are more focused on preserving market share than a true identification with native persons.

Others suggest that the new saints are not the best models for Catholic outreach to indigenous persons.

In the case of Bautista and de los Angeles, the two men were lay guardians of the faith at the time, a post that required them to report to church authorities community behavior regarded as immoral or blasphemous. They were beaten to death by a mob of indigenous persons from Cajonos in 1700, enraged because the two had informed on their practice of pre-Christian religions.

With Juan Diego, the debate is over whether he existed at all. The first literary reference comes more than 100 years after his death, and several scholars, including the former head of the Guadalupe shrine, have cast doubt on whether he was a real historical figure rather than a popular myth.

None of this mattered much to Antonio Vasquez Romero of Jalisco, a Nahautl Indian who traveled to Mexico City for the Juan Diego festivities.

“Our faith is bigger than these polemics,” he said. “Our faith is like a torch … it gives us light.”

John Paul II has been greeted by large and enthusiastic crowds on his Latin American trip. When he arrived in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, cheers of, “We see, we feel, the pope is here” became so loud that at times it felt more like game seven of the NBA finals than a religious ceremony.

A local newspaper, meanwhile, took a practical spirit, crediting Juan Diego with the “miracles” of getting the president and mayor to work together, keeping the streets clean for 24 hours, and persuading a group of farmers contesting the construction of a new airport to suspend their protests.

John L. Allen Jr., NCR Rome correspondent, traveled with the pope. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, August 16, 2002