IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring
By Cindy Wooden
SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico (CNS) — Paying homage to
the culture and ancient wisdom of Mexico’s indigenous peoples, Pope Francis
urged them to hold on to hope and condemned those who exploit their people and
“Some have considered your values, culture and
traditions to be inferior. Others, intoxicated by power, money and market
trends, have stolen your lands or contaminated them,” the pope said at a
Mass Feb. 15 with representatives of Mexico’s indigenous communities.
“You have much to teach us,” he told the elders,
activists and simple faithful gathered at a sports complex in San Cristobal de
Las Casas, a city in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, and a center of
advocacy and struggle for the indigenous rights.
Chiapas, and particularly the Diocese of San Cristobal de
Las Casas, also has been a center of official Catholic support for indigenous
culture, support that was not always shared by all of Mexico’s bishops.
During his stay in the city, Pope Francis communicated the
Vatican’s official approval of the use of the local languages in liturgical
prayer. Two of the languages — Tzotzil and Tzeltal — were used for some of
the readings and prayers during the pope’s Mass. And, after the pope read his
homily in Spanish, it was translated for the many in the crowd who speak only
their Mayan tongue.
It was under Pope Francis that the diocese was allowed to
start ordaining permanent deacons again in 2014 after ordering a 12-year
suspension. The vast majority of the diocese’s more than 300 permanent deacons
are married leaders in their indigenous communities; the late Bishop Samuel
Ruiz Garcia began ordaining large numbers of the leaders in a program of
pastoral outreach that many saw as exaggerating the place of indigenous culture
in the local church, but also as a potential first step toward pushing for
married priests for indigenous communities.
As the pope toured the crowd in the popemobile, a priest led
the people in chanting: “Welcome, pope of peace. Welcome, pope of mercy.
Welcome, pope of justice. Welcome, pope of freedom. Welcome, pope of the
The cheer also hailed the pope for wanting “a church
that is born of the people” and bishops and priests who are
“alongside the poor.”
To applause, the priest also acclaimed, “The people
walk with Tatic Samuel (Bishop Ruiz) and Tatic Francis, who encourages
us.” Tatic is the Mayan word for father.
In a country rich in natural resources, but scarred by
pollution and inequality, Pope Francis compared the indigenous communities
to the ancient Israelites enslaved in Egypt, and he assured them that God hears
their cry for dignity and respect and their longing to protect their cultures.
In responding to the oppression of the Israelites, the pope
said, God showed them his true face, “the face of a father who suffers as
he sees the pain, mistreatment and lack of justice for his children.”
“They say that Chiapas is a rich state, but we don’t know
where these riches are,” said Manuel Mendez, a vegetable farmer. Wearing a
lambs-wool robe at Mass, Mendez comes from the tough indigenous town of San
Juan Chamula — where the local authorities clashed with Bishop Ruiz and refused
to allow his priests to serve while he led the diocese.
The federal and state governments have sent enormous sums of
money to Chiapas since the 1994 Zapatista uprising of indigenous, but poverty rates have remained
unchanged and still top 75 percent of the population.
“It’s better, but there are still great needs,”
said Domingo Lopez, a corn farmer from the municipality of Oxchuc, who camped
out overnight in the cold at the Mass site with 11 family members.
Pope Francis quoted “Popol Vuh,” a collection of
traditional indigenous literature, which says, “The dawn rises on all of
the tribes together. The face of the earth was immediately healed by the
sun.” The story, he said, illustrates how “the sun rose for the
people who at various times have walked in the midst of history’s darkest
The quotation expresses a yearning for freedom and for
reaching “a promised land where oppression, mistreatment and humiliation
are not the currency of the day,” Pope Francis said.
Mexico’s indigenous and many other people around the world
still yearn for such a land and “for a time when human corruption will be
overcome by fraternity, when injustice will be conquered by solidarity and when
violence will be silenced by peace.”
Today, too, God suffers when his children do, he said. In his greatest sign of solidarity with
humanity, God sent his son into the world to live like them and to suffer and
die to save them.
God’s son rose “so that darkness may not have the last
word and dawn may not cease to rise on the lives of his sons and
daughters,” the pope told the people.
The yearning for freedom and a bright future is something to
hold on to and keep alive, Pope Francis said. People must resist attempts
others make to silence their yearning, “anesthetize our soul” or
“lull our children” into thinking that nothing can change and their
dreams will never come true.
The main road leading to the sports center was decorated
with banners featuring photos of local people and quotations from Pope Francis,
many of them from his encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” on safeguarding
At the Mass, the pope praised the indigenous people’s wisdom
in caring for the earth and encouraged their efforts to defend it from further
“The environmental challenge that we are experiencing
and its human causes, affect us all and demands our response,” he said.
“We can no longer remain silent before one of the greatest environmental
crises in world history.”
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Contributing to this story was David Agren in San Cristobal
de Las Casas.
Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden
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