Bob McKeon


March 7, 2016

Pope Francis' recent six-day visit to Mexico provided strong social justice messages. His visit to San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, focusing on respect for the contribution of indigenous peoples in the Church and the wider society, had special meaning for many in Canada.

Chiapas is one of the poorest states in Mexico. Indigenous peoples comprise over a third of the population of Chiapas and have suffered a long history of social exclusion, overt racism, environmental harm and violence.

This is a diocese with a long and rich history. The first bishop, Bartholomew de Las Casas was installed in 1543. He was called "Defender of the Indians."

More than 100,000 people attended the pope's Mass in San Cristobal. Most were indigenous. Three indigenous languages were incorporated into the liturgy.

Pope Francis acknowledged the historic injustices, how "in a systematic and organized way your people have been misunderstood and excluded from society," and that those "intoxicated by power, money and market trends, have stolen your lands and contaminated them." He affirmed the people by insisting "you have much to teach us."

Indigenous women dip their hands in holy water during a Jan. 21 service in Mexico's southern Chiapas state.


Indigenous women dip their hands in holy water during a Jan. 21 service in Mexico's southern Chiapas state.

After the Mass, Pope Francis had lunch with eight indigenous pastoral leaders, representing different tribal groups and Church roles.

However, there was a key moment when Pope Francis stopped to pray at the grave of Bishop Samuel Ruiz who served as bishop of San Cristobal de Las Casas for 40 years from 1960 to 2000. With Pope Francis, gestures often speak louder than words.

Ruiz was a pioneer of Latin American liberation theology lived out in his diocese and in local communities. He made the "preferential option for the poor" a central part of his pastoral priorities.

Upon his arrival in the diocese, he visited the widely dispersed local indigenous communities, and learned two of the major indigenous languages in his area. He saw the need for the Church to respect local indigenous cultures, and to include indigenous peoples at the centre of diocesan life and ministry.


One major priority was that indigenous communities be served in ministry by members of their own communities rooted in local language and culture. This led to training and installing several thousand catechists, and the formation and ordination of hundreds of married indigenous deacons, who were selected and supported from within their local communities.

This high level of mobilizing and training in local communities had major social and political consequences in the struggles for indigenous rights in the repressive social structures of Chiapas. Wealthy landowners, government officials, other Mexican bishops and even Vatican officials opposed Ruiz's innovative pastoral approaches.

In 2002, after Ruiz's retirement, the Vatican ordered a moratorium in ordaining married indigenous deacons in the diocese. Pope Francis has supported the pastoral priority of inculturation and reversed the previous Vatican decision to suspend the ordination of married indigenous deacons in the diocese.


Pope Francis, by stopping to pray at the tomb of Bishop Samuel Ruiz, affirmed his leadership and pastoral vision.

The pastoral program of Ruiz of justice for the poor and full inclusion of indigenous peoples in the life of his diocese has had a major influence far beyond the borders of the state of Chiapas.

In 1980, I was part of a Development and Peace study tour from Alberta to Mexico which included a meeting with Ruiz. This provided an important inspiration for my work in the early years of the Edmonton Archdiocesan Social Justice Commission.

A few years later, Ruiz was a Development and Peace solidarity visitor for Alberta, which included presentations in several Alberta communities.

In recent years, the Directions in Aboriginal Ministry Program has organized a summer conference for indigenous Catholics and non-indigenous pastoral ministers working in indigenous settings in Western Canada to study and take action on issues of inculturation, dialogue, reconciliation and social justice.


The program last summer included a presentation on the indigenous pastoral initiatives originated by Ruiz in San Cristobal. Hopefully this pastoral connection can be expanded in future years.

In this time following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada, the courageous and Spirit-filled leadership of Pope Francis and the transformative example of pioneers like Samuel Ruiz and the indigenous communities of Chiapas can serve as a powerful direction and support for truly respectful and faithful Catholic ministry with indigenous peoples in Western Canada.

(Bob McKeon: