It was a remarkable mass for a remarkable man.
The news spread rapidly yesterday morning of the death of Bishop Samuel Ruiz. He died at the age of 86, the day that marked 51 years since his ordination as Bishop of the Diocese of San Cristobal. By 2:30 the Mexico City church had filled with an unusual group of religious leaders, peace activists and figures who have marked Mexican politics over the years. All recalled their work alongside Tatik (“father” in Tzeltal) with a bittersweet blend of loss and gratitude.
I sat in the pews, listening to the first strains of “métale a la marcha, métale al tambor, métale que traigo un pueblo en mi voz…” (Join the march, join the drum, join in, I carry the people in my voice…) watching the faces of hundreds of committed people who in various moments of a long and full life walked alongside Don Sam, El caminante. A history that changed Mexico forever flooded into the room.
Bishop Raúl Vera recalled that Samuel Ruiz arrived in the state of Chiapas to face a reality he had not imagined, a reality that many in Mexico didn’t know existed. He set out to travel to the far corners of the region– not an easy task–and saw with his own eyes the scars of the plantation-owners’ whips on the backs of indigenous men and heard the accounts of how young girls were routinely forced to have their virginity “tested” (lost) by the owners when they decided to marry, among other terrible examples of the feudal conditions his new parishioners suffered. He encountered a system of oppression and brutality that changed his life and he decided the system had to change, through the word of God and an intense social commitment.
It’s worth mentioning that Bishop Raúl Vera came to know his counterpart when the Church sent him as a “coadjutor” to Ruiz in 1995, presumably to temper his radical influence. The opposite happened. In what Vera describes as a conversion experience, he encountered the conditions that had led Don Samuel to embrace a church of and for the poor and soon became a partner in bringing the church down to the people and building a movement to allow its indigenous members to gain their rightful place in the church and in society. To this day, Don Raúl remains as a successor to the work of Don Samuel; now based in Coahuila, his is a strong voice in defense of a human rights as Mexico suffers a new phase of violence and repression.