Controversial “Bishop of the Poor” Dies at 86

On January 24, 2011 the Indigenous people of Mexico and neighboring Guatemala lost one of their greatest advocates in Bishop Samuel García Ruiz. For over 40 years Bishop Ruiz accompanied and struggled alongside of Mayans in the Chiapas region, promoting his message of nonviolence and the full humanity of indigenous peoples.

His advocacy for the indigenous not only made him a controversial figure among the wealthy Mexican landowners in Chiapas and throughout the country, but also led to strained relations with the Vatican. He was accused of having leftist political tendencies and for being too open to the comingling of Mayan and Roman Catholic religious practices. In fact, the Bishop’s theology and the practices of his local church were under investigation by the Vatican (the results were never released) and when he reached the mandatory age of retirement at 75, no special extensions were given to him.

Not only has the Church of Mexico lost one of its prophetic voices, but so has the global Church as a whole. Bishop Ruiz, who attended every session of the Vatican II Council and was present in the 1968 gathering of Latin American bishops in Medellín, Columbia, represents a generation of priests that truly heeded the call of the Council to immerse the Church within the modern world. He represents a generation of priests who embodied the teachings of the Gospel deeply engaged in its context, the horrific suffering of Indigenous peoples at the hands of wealthy landowners.

Born in 1925 in Guanajuato, Mexico and ordained at age 24 after studying at the Gregorian University in Rome, Bishop Ruiz led the Diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas from 1959 to 2000. In the 1990s he served as mediator in an attempt to end the conflict between the Mexican government and the indigenous Zapatista National Liberation Army in Chiapas.

Though he was asked to step down as mediator for supposedly favoring the Zapatistas, the tentative truce between the two groups has been sustained since 1998. He is remembered as an advocate for the Indigenous who not only promoted their full humanity, but also respected their religious traditions and culture. To the Indigenous he was known as the Jtatic (“Bishop of the Poor”) in the Tzotzil Mayan language. While often caricatured as a “red bishop” who preached a communist message of class struggle that supported the armed Zapatistas, Bishop Ruiz consistently espoused a vision of nonviolence and peaceful mediation. In 1999 he founded the Father Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Centre and his life as a whole reminds us that the Latin American Church has been and still is the Church of the Poor.

Bishops Ruiz’s death marks the passing of yet another priest who embodied the grassroots Christian action at the heart of liberation theology. Since the 1990s eulogies to liberation theology have abounded, claiming that the Christian praxis in solidarity with the poor that lies at its heart has failed. I think often we academics make such grandiose critical claims, as we are taught to do, and forget the flesh and blood individuals whose lives have been transformed and who deeply mourn the passing of religious leaders such as Ruiz; he not only lived with the poor, he learned their language (four Mayan dialects), and placed their struggles on an international arena. And yet I hope that ten years from now his advocacy will not be remembered as a relic of the past—a Church that once was—and instead that there’ll be an active remembrance and embodiment of his non-violent commitment to the Indigenous poor and his respect for their culture and religion.

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