The Life and Witness of Samuel Ruiz – Jim Hodgson

San Salvador, January 31, 2011

I write as the novena—the nine days of prayer following the death of Bishop Samuel Ruiz—is drawing to a close. The flow of moving tributes to this remarkable leader has become a flood, and this is good: it means people, including his opponents, are thinking about the significance of the life of Don Samuel.

And I am writing from San Salvador, where the witness of another exemplary bishop, Oscar Romero, is very much with me.

To me, the life of Samuel Ruiz was the Gospel come alive in our times. I was blessed over the years to have been able to meet Don Samuel in groups small and large, and to chat over occasional cafeteria meals and once while doing dishes together at an ecumenical peace conference.

He is remembered as a peacemaker, the mediator in the still-unfinished process of achieving peace in Chiapas. But Don Samuel was a peacemaker very much in the tradition of Jesus Christ: “My peace I give to you, but not as the world gives,” Jesus is quoted as saying in John 14:17. Peace in our time, it seems to me, is often dressed up in false notions of militarized security, or the apparent absence of conflict despite conditions of injustice imposed by the most powerful.

Don Samuel’s leadership inspired the people of his largely Maya Indigenous diocese in southern Mexico to speak boldly and work for justice. Their action provoked reaction. One of my strongest memories of Don Samuel is of an event where he was not visible. His people were the protagonists.

On a bright Sunday afternoon in February 1995, a mob attacked several hundred Indigenous defenders of the cathedral in San Cristobal. I removed myself from a crowd of on-lookers and went to stand among them.

Standing three deep in scraggly lines, they held flowers. Marigolds and daisies and those big blue ones whose name I can never remember. Several hundred Maya faced a crowd of city-dwellers who saw them—the Indigenous people—as the interlopers, the ones who had no business in the heart of their colonial city. The attack on the cathedral came a few days after then-President Ernesto Zedillo had launched a military attack on Zapatista communities in southern Chiapas.

Stones flew through the air. A window was smashed at the diocesan office that was alongside the cathedral and also faced out to the plaza. Inside, Don Samuel was meeting with the mediation commission. Part of the mob tried to set fire to tree branches and garbage piled against the wooden doors of the office. A shot was fired, but the gun was wrestled away.

During another visit to San Cristobal, I remember one of Don Samuel’s flock, a woman from Sabanilla, explaining what she had learned about peace: “We have been struggling for the good of our brothers and sisters as Indigenous people. We talk about peace, but many people do not have food or clothing or land, and this is not living in peace.”

Don Samuel’s life among the Maya Indigenous majority in his diocese challenged both those who think the church should offer programs to serve the marginalized and those who would rather ignore them altogether. The church is the poor, he insisted; it is those who are usually excluded everywhere else.

In January 2000, I joined huge crowds in San Cristobal that gathered to celebrate his 40th anniversary as bishop. Don Samuel was asked to repeat the words he used to conclude a 1975 diocesan assembly when he stated clearly the church’s option for the poor.

To loud applause, he read: “Even if it turns out that we cannot take the same step, we all have the duty to walk. No one has the right to be seated. The one who does not want to walk for this option knows well where the door out of this diocese is.”

A true prophet, he did not soften his words to win acceptance. And yet he could be utterly tender and compassionate: his people called him jTatik, which something close to Daddy. In January 1998, just a month after the massacre in Acteal when 45 Indigenous people were killed by a death squad, Don Samuel led a diocesan pilgrimage to the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City. About 1,000 people had come with him from Chiapas, and on a cold night, they were joined by several thousand more people: we filled the giant church.

The service began with “strong prayer”—the Maya way of praying, everyone out loud at the same time, in their own language, many in tears. The prayers gradually subsided, and the mass proceeded slowly because, as a journalist friend wrote at the time, “Indigenous solemnity does not include hurry.” In a massive crowd in that cavernous church, the atmosphere was as intimate as a family dinner. Don Samuel said, “Chiapas today is a universal sign of the call to justice.”

I travelled to Acteal with friends on the first anniversary of the massacre. Again, a crowd that numbered in the thousands, and yet the mood was that of friends gathered to mourn the loss of other friends. Bishop Ruiz said we were in the presence of martyrs. “Acteal is the seed of a new Mexico, the peaceful, just and worthy Mexico of which we all dream,” he said.

We mourn the loss of a friend and great leader, but cannot help but celebrate the seeds of transformation that Don Samuel has planted in each of us.

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