Seeking Mayan Means of Expressing Christianity

By MacEOIN, Gary | National Catholic Reporter, December 10, 1999 | Go to article overview

Seeking Mayan Means of Expressing Christianity


MacEOIN, Gary, National Catholic Reporter


Ruiz envisions `priesthood of the culture'

Samuel Ruiz, for 40 years bishop of San Cristobal de Las Casas in the highlands of southern Mexico, has reached the retirement age of 75. He is open, friendly, relaxed, unimpressed by his own erudition, dreaming ambitious dreams and confident that they will become true.

His overarching dream, one that he has to an impressive extent made a reality, is that the indigenous people of his diocese, more than a million native Americans speaking half a dozen Mayan languages, long powerless and voiceless, take control of their lives and find ways to express their Christian beliefs in forms that are meaningful within their culture.

Don Samuel is internationally famous for his role as mediator and peacemaker in the conflict, now in its sixth year, between the Zapatistas and the Mexican government. But as became clear in a recent talk with NCR, this work was always subordinate to and a logical extension of his commitment to a full inculturation of the Christian message in the Mayan world.

In a recent interview during the Nov. 5-7 Call to Action conference in Milwaukee, he made it clear that his vision of a "priesthood of the culture" included the ultimate accommodation of Mayan culture -- a priesthood shared by a married couple, the traditional civil and religious leaders in Mayan villages.

As far back as the Vatican Council (1962-65) Ruiz was already deeply involved in exploring the theological need to find ways of expressing Christ's message in cultural forms other than those of Europe. In this area he is fully at home, ranging volubly through theology, history, anthropology. But what really identifies Ruiz is a genius for storytelling that brings theory down to practice, as in this one:

   Try to imagine the trauma of the indigenous priest who told me his
   experience. "Three or four days after I entered the seminary," he said.
   "the rector asked me if I had a woman somewhere round here. Then he began
   to tear up the ground as if he was about to plant a tree. I took the spade.
   With my cassock hitched up to my belt, I asked if I should continue to dig.

   "`That's enough,' said the rector.

   "And what are we going to plant -- a tree?"

   "`We're not going to plant a tree. Put your Indian complexes here, turn the
   earth on top of them, and be the same as the rest of us.'

   "Well, I felt like a fish that had to live out of water. And I learned to
   live out of water. But after I'm ordained, the bishop sends me to my home
   community where my parents, whose language I had forgotten, still lived.
   And the people rejected me because I had betrayed my community.

   "I set out seriously, however, to relearn my own language and to
   reassimilate my culture until one day they come and say to me: `Father, we
   now understand that this brother really wants to live with us.' Then, about
   a week later, I hear the music of the village band coming toward the
   priest's house. What's going on? I thought. There is not saint's say. Where
   are they going? By now I can see the municipal president followed by all
   the people and the musicians.

   "What's up?"

   "`Nothing special, just to let you know that we are happy, because you are
   now a true Indian, and you are telling us and we know that you want to live
   with us.'

   "And the municipal president steps forward. `Just to make it formal, here
   is my daughter to marry you.'

   You can imagine the psychological journey of these people.

   The priest laughed: "And she wasn't particularly good-looking."

It is a story that takes a lot of decoding. The mestizo rector introduces the listener to the historically conditioned mentality of those who centuries ago centered the world of the conquerors as their servants and are now the cattle barons, the businessmen and the politicians of Mexico, those who think they alone are entitled to be called Mexicans. …

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