Rachel Warden was one of the speakers at a Toronto memorial Feb. 29 for the late Bishop Samuel Ruiz of the diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico. Photo by Michael Swan

Remembering Bishop Samuel Ruiz

  • March 7, 2012

TORONTO - Bishop Samuel Ruiz made the Vatican nervous, he made the government of Mexico nervous and he made indigenous people around the world proud. Ruiz was bishop of the diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas in the southern Mexican province for more than 40 years. He was memorialized in an ecumenical prayer service in Toronto Feb. 23 by veteran human rights campaigners and Church activists.

“His legacy is alive and well and is needed in Mexico today,” Jesuit Father José Avilés told about 100 people who gathered for the prayer service and a conference that followed.

“Wealth is concentrated in so few hands. The number of poor people is growing at an alarming rate.”

Avilés was ordained by Ruiz, worked with him for many years and today is the vicar for justice and peace in San Cristobal.

In a diocese that is about three-quarters indigenous, Ruiz sought to make the Church as indigenous as the people in the pews. Given that the people are overwhelmingly poor, Ruiz sought to make the Church serve the poor.

“A Church that does not opt for the poor is not the Church of Jesus Christ,” Ruiz would tell his priests, said Avilés.

Ruiz based his option-for-the-poor theology on the observation that the only person in history who could choose the circumstances of his birth was Jesus and He chose to be born poor.

That Ruiz was able to make the Church truly aboriginal without sacrificing its universality is most inspiring, said Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald. MacDonald is the national indigenous bishop for the Anglican Church of Canada.

MacDonald was a key contributor to a recent statement from the World Council of Churches denouncing the “doctrine of discovery.” The doctrine of discovery finds its legal origins in bulls issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1452 that allowed for the use of force in the conquest and conversion of newly discovered lands and people in the West.

By disowning the doctrine of discovery the World Council of Churches isn’t concerned only with Renaissance Church history, said MacDonald.

“What we’re really after is not the doctrine of discovery a long time ago,” he said. “What we’re concerned about is the doctrine of discovery today.”

In the dominant culture the doctrine of discovery lives on in an often unconscious assumption that aboriginal cultures are at some earlier stage of development and will naturally evolve into something more like Western culture, he said. As a bishop, Ruiz never assumed indigenous people would eventually become Western, said MacDonald.

In some ways a renunciation of the doctrine of discovery only confirms a theological consensus that has been in place for at least a generation. Pope John Paul II implicitly condemned the doctrine of discovery during the 2000 Great Jubilee when he apologized for the violence used to try to force conversions on indigenous people.

Ruiz faced opposition within the Church from Vatican officials who viewed liberation theology and inculturation with suspicion. But he received a visit from Pope John Paul II to Chiapas in 1993. The Mexican bishop told Vatican officials he would resign at once if asked by the Pope.

He remained bishop until his retirement in 2000.

The bishop’s name found its way into headlines around the world in 1994 when he became the mediator between the Zapatista National Army of Liberation and the Mexican government of Felipe Calderon. Though he was later accused by the government of favouring the rebel group, the Jan. 1, 1994 uprising was remarkable for its avoidance of violence.

“He collaborated to stop a genocide,” said Avilés. “We can never forget Acteal.”

The Acteal massacre killed 45 Catholics, including pregnant women and children, at a prayer meeting in a church Dec. 22, 1997. The pacifist Las Abejas organizers of the prayer meeting had expressed support for Zapatista goals. The attack took place not far from a Mexican army base.

Ruiz died Jan. 24, 2011. The Toronto prayer service and conference memorializing him was organized by Canadian Jesuits International, the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, KAIROS, the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (Anglican) and the United Church of Canada.

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