POPE JOHN Paul II will fly into a row when he arrives in Mexico tonight. Indigenous Catholics might be expected to be ecstatic that the Pope will canonise their brown-skinned saint, Juan Diego, and beatify two Indian martyrs this week.
Yet some devout Catholic Mayas in southern Mexico say the Vatican has let them down, and hint that, as long as contemporary Indians are discouraged from spreading the faith unless they are fully- fledged priests, the Pope's gesture of recognising the world's first Indian saint rings hollow.
A recent Vatican ruling limits the number of deacons who can bring Catholic rituals to remote hamlets in Chiapas. Undaunted by arduous journeys over unpaved roads, the deacons reach places such as Talomhuitz, where few locals understand priestly Spanish.
These family men, who normally collaborate with the clergy, have become a powerful home-grown corps of substitute clerics not easily regulated by the Vatican. They dole out communion wafers consecrated by a distant parish priest but cannot hear confession.
While the 82-year-old pontiff honours an Aztec herdsman, who is purported to have conversed with the Virgin of Guadalupe's apparition on a Mexican hillside in 1531, the church has snubbed 341 modern Indian volunteers who put their farm work aside to perform baptisms and marriages and hold Sunday services in obscure Mayan languages.
In Chiapas state, where liberation theology had a last gasp in the mid-Nineties in tandem with a peasant uprising, the predominantly Indian deacons outnumber priests by four to one. Most claim their calling was revealed to them in a dream.
Bernardino Hernandez Gonzalez, a deacon candidate whose ordination will be denied, or at best postponed, after 15 years of service, said: "No one takes an Indian seriously, even if he is a saint. But it's about time Juan Diego had his day; it's been 500 years."
Few Mayas will journey to Mexico City's basilica for the papal mass tomorrow, although those who do will be placed conspicuously in the front rows. Juan Diego's 16th-century peasant's cloak, imprinted with the sacred image of a haloed Mary standing in a rose bed, is on display above an airport-style conveyor belt that keeps the throngs of worshippers moving.
Many scholars suggest that old Juan Diego …