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Samuel Ruiz: A Vatican II Bishop Who Made a Difference

July 11, 2011:

This brief essay is written in honor and memory of Samuel Ruiz (1924-2011), Bishop of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico from 1960-2000. It examines Bishop Ruiz's theological reflections on the cultural with the local indigenous communities and the contribution of this dialogue to transforming the missionary approach of the diocese and beyond.


A New Paradigm of Mission Theology in Latin America

The personal experience and theological perspectives of Samuel Ruiz García are a witness to an era of profound change and a movement of hope in the church.[1] The new mission theology that emerged in Chiapas as well as in many parts of Latin America around the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the meeting of the Latin American Bishops (CELAM II) in Medellín, Colombia (1968) challenged the old colonial models of mission that were operative in the church for several centuries.[2] Wherever the gospel was proclaimed to indigenous people in the “New World,” notes Bishop Ruiz,

with it came a new culture, namely the Western culture, and it was imposed on people as the only way of living the Christian faith. This imposition, therefore, created a real and visible cultural and religious schizophrenia with obvious symptoms among all the Native peoples in the continent.  … We realized that their marginalization, poverty and misery were not the result of their free choice but rather were the result of a process in which we are involved and which we need to rethink.[3]

            A different approach to missionary work among indigenous peoples that began in the 1970s in dioceses such as San Cristóbal, among other places, informed and shaped a new mission theology. One of the key factors that contributed to this development is the interaction of some missionaries and pastoral leaders, including Ruiz, who was a new bishop then, with the anthropological movement at that time. This anthropological movement critiqued the Eurocentric missionary work of the church in Latin America and developed an alternative anthropology in support of the liberation of indigenous peoples. The interaction between pastoral workers and anthropologists from this movement gave an impetus for the development of a new mission theology.[4] The radical transformation of Ruiz’s missionary approach, particularly as a result of his new understanding of the cultures of indigenous peoples, helps us better understand the significance of this new relationship between the church and local indigenous communities.

            "When I came [to Chiapas]," recounted Bishop Ruiz, "I saw the churches full of Indians, but it was only later that I realized the sad reality of these people which provoked my conversion."[5] "My eyes were open," he said, "but I was sleeping."

I traveled through villages where bosses were scourging debt-slaves who did not want to work more than eight hours a day, but all I saw were old churches and old women praying. 'Such good people,' I said to myself, not noticing that these good people were victims of cruel oppression.[6]

            This blindness to social realities did not last very long. A few years later, the new bishop began to ask himself a fundamental question: What has the church been doing during all these years of evangelization, if the indigenous communities continue to be marginalized the same way as in colonial times?[7]

            Bishop Ruiz’s writings in the late 1960s and early 1970s help us see some of the key theological turning points that influenced the future development of his theology and pastoral ministry. One of his earliest available theological works is a paper he presented at the Latin American Bishops meeting in Medellín.[8] This paper comprises a critique of the missionary work of the Catholic Church in Latin America and the church's pastoral approach to indigenous peoples and their cultures.

            On the topic of the presence of the Catholic Church in Latin America in general, Bishop Ruiz pointed out that "we must put an end to the myth that Latin America is a Catholic continent. If the Church is a 'community of faith, hope and charity,' this vision is not carried out in Latin America."[9] He pointed to several areas, including religion and culture, where he saw a juxtaposition of opposing social realities. Indigenous peoples, he argued in his paper, are marginalized at all levels. Generally, Ruiz noted, churches in their pastoral work either support their total integration, which is assumed to mean the death of their culture, or they go to the other extreme, that is, “promote a charitable and welfare-type assistance which does not take into consideration marginality and underdevelopment, and which does not see the necessity of basing this help on Indian values, cultures, and ways of thinking.”[10] The paper also pointed out that the present ways of evangelization were destroying indigenous cultures.

            In his subsequent pastoral work and theological reflections, Bishop Ruiz continued to give special attention to the areas of faith, evangelization, and cultures. Since the early 1970s, he became convinced that divine salvific work is present in other cultures, and that it is necessary for the church to enter into honest dialogue with other peoples and their cultures in order to discover and learn about this divine presence. He began, then, to consider this dialogue as an essential part of the missionary work of the church. In his view, this was the important contribution of the Vatican II document Ad Gentes, and he had no illusion concerning the difficulty of this task.[11] "The missionary church," he argued,

is facing a delicate and difficult work: the study and accurate, positive and sympathetic knowledge of non-Christian religions. The church has to see in these religions a divine element and a presence of God (Vatican II, Ad Gentes, 9 b et 11 b); and more so, to know that the Word of God, before he became flesh in order to save and gather up all things in himself, was already in the world, as the “true light that enlightens every man” (Jn 1,9 and Gaudium et Spes, 57).[12]

            According to Bishop Ruiz, there are not two parallel histories in the world, one sacred and one profane. He learned from his work with indigenous communities that God's work is revealed in the history of all peoples and that God's Spirit is present in all cultures--the Spirit was at work in the world before Christ.[13] In Ruiz's view, this is an important theological foundation for inter-religious and intercultural dialogue. Making reference to Ad Gentes, Gaudium et Spes, and to the first letter to the Ephesians, he asserted that:

If there is only one history of salvation and this history includes all peoples of all times, then God has already acted and is still acting today in all cultures. The presence of God, and the presence of the Word (the seeds of the Divine Word) appear in the multiple cultural riches and values that are rays of the supreme Truth (Ad Gentes, 9 b, 11 b; Nostra Æetate, 2 b; Gaudium et Spes, 38). These values that prepare the way for the gospel, which are either implicitly salvific, ascetic or mystical, were present prior to the preaching of the gospel (Ad Gentes, 3 a; 18 b; Gaudium et Spes, 92 d).[14]

            Vatican II, notes Bishop Ruiz, affirmed these theological principles and opened the way for a genuine religious and cultural dialogue. The church is called to act on this by engaging in dialogue with other cultures to discover their religious and spiritual richness. Part of the church's work of evangelization, then, insisted Ruiz, is to dialogue with cultures and learn about God's salvific presence in them. In this sense, the church is called to be a servant to the world, and not to act as its master by imposing a foreign culture on other peoples. These aspects of a theology of history and a theology of culture have been clear in Ruiz's mind since the early 1970s. They provided a theological foundation that guided and supported his pastoral practice.

            The story of Ruiz’s transformation outlined above is symbolic of a significant historic moment of cultural change in the church and the world at large. Ruiz was a Vatican II and a Medellín bishop who was transformed by these events and who made a difference by becoming a key player in transforming a diocesan pastoral process and mission theology in the Latin American church.

[1]Despite the international attention on Chiapas since the indigenous uprising in January of 1994, there are still very few theological works on the experience of this local church, especially in the English language. The new book by Richard Gaillardetz, Ecclesiology for a Global Church: A People Called and Sent (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2008) is the only theological work I am aware of that takes the experience of the Diocese of San Cristóbal seriously in its discussion on global ecclesiology. See also Michel Andraos, “Indigenous Leadership in the Church: The Experience of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico,” Toronto Journal of Theology 21/1 (2005), 57-65; and Richard Gaillardetz, “Accountability in the Church: Report from Chiapas,” New Theology Review, 19(May 2006), 33-43.

[2] For a description of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the indigenous people of Southern Mexico, see John D. Early, The Maya and Catholicism: An Encounter of Worldviews (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006).

[3] Michel Andraos, ed. and trans. Seeking Freedom: Bishop Samuel Ruiz in Conversation with Jorge S. Santiago on Time and History, Prophecy, Faith and Politics, and Peace (Toronto: Toronto Council of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, 1999), 18-19.

[4] In a paper presented at the First International Colloquium in memory of anthropologist Andrés Aubry in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, December of 2007, Jorge Santiago outlined the history of the interactions between the anthropological movement that emerged in the 1970s and the missionaries and pastoral agents who worked in some dioceses of Mexico that have high indigenous population. Santiago notes that shortly after the Encuentro de Antropólogos en Barbadosin 1971 and the declaration in support of the liberation of indigenous peoples that followed, several meetings took place between anthropologists and pastoral workers, both in Chiapas and the rest of Mexico. Bishop Ruiz, along with Andrés Aubry who worked closely with him and the pastoral agents of the Diocese of San Cristóbal since the early 1970s, participated in many of these meeting which, according to Santiago, had a significant influence on Ruiz’s new understanding of culture and the subsequent development of his mission theology. See (accessed July 9, 2011). See also the interview of Santiago with Ruiz on this topic in Andraos, Seeking Freedom,15-18.

[5] Carlos Tello Díaz, La Rebelión de las Cañadas (Mexico City: Cal y Arena, 1995), 58-59. Unless indicated otherwise, all quotations from sources in the Spanish language are the author’s translation.

[6] Gary MacEoin, The People's Church: Bishop Samuel Ruiz of Mexico and Why He Matters (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996), 26; also see Carlos Fazio, El Caminante (Mexico City: Espasa Calpe, 1994),105-106.

[7] Carlos Fazio, Samuel Ruiz: El Caminante (Mexico City: Espasa Calpe, 1994), 101.

[8]Samuel Ruiz, "Evangelization in Latin America," in The Church in the Present-Day Transformation of Latin America in the Light of the Council, Second General Conference of Latin American Bishops, I, Position Papers (Bogotá: General Secretariat of CELAM, 1970), 155-177.

[9] Ruiz, "Evangelization in Latin America," 155 and158; In the same vein, Bishop Ruiz commented in an address to a group of university students in Mexico City in 1995 saying "I often wondered what has the church done here in 500 years?" Samuel Ruiz, Reflexiones Pastorales ante Universitarios (Mexico City: Universidad Iberoamericana, 1995), 12.

[10] Ruiz, "Evangelization in Latin America," 166.

[11] See a commentary by Bishop Ruiz on this topic in Felipe J. Ali Modad Aguilar, S.J., Engrandecer el Corazón de la Comunidad: el Sacerdocio Ministerial en una Iglesia Inculturada (Mexico City: Centro de Reflexión Teológica, 1999), 5.

[12] Samuel Ruiz, "Le Monde d'Aujourd'hui Interpelle la Théologie," in Samuel Ruiz et Edgard Beltran, L'Utopie Chrétienne, Libérer l'Homme (Québec: Edition Départ, Entraide Missionnaire, 1971), 24.

[13] Samuel Ruiz and Javier Vargas, "Pasión y Resurrección del Indio," Estudios Indígenas, II, 1 (Sept. 1972), 35-48.

[14] Samuel Ruiz, "Ecclésiologie et Engagement Pastoral," in Ruiz and Beltran, L'Utopie Chrétienne, 63-64.