Friday, February 03, 2012

San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, México - a pilgrimage?

My four days in San Cristóbal de Las Casas for a friend’s wedding at the end of January was also for me a sort of pilgrimage.

One of the early bishops of  San Cristóbal was Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, the Dominican who was an outspoken defender of the indigenous, even ordering priests not to grant absolution to Spaniards there who kept the indigenous as slaves or indentured servants. For this he ended up leaving after only a few years. He then went to Spain and worked for the indigenous at the Spanish court.

Though I found very little evidence of his presence in San Cristóbal, at least the city bears his name.

Inside the church of Santo Domingo

I did get to the church of Santo Domingo, the Dominican church. It is impressive – with almost every piece of the wall covered with gold. It is gilt – but it also is a sign of the guilt of Spain and the church to use so much gold which was probably mined by the indigenous. But at least there were two altars to Latin American saints: St. Rose of Lima and St. Martin de Porres.

The Church of Santo Domingo

The cathedral is magnificent with several golden altar retablos, but not as overwhelming as the church of Santo Domingo.

The main altar of the cathedral

But what interested me was behind the main altar. There is the tomb of Don Samuel Ruiz, the Bishop of the indigenous, who for many years served as bishop in San Cristóbal. I knelt and prayed at his tomb – praying that his spirit and commitment to the poor and the indigenous would continue in the church.

The tomb of Don Samuel Ruiz

I came back to the tomb two more times. Once, several indigenous were preparing flowers.

Late one night I talked with Don Marcelo, my friend’s father, who knew Don Samuel. He told me of the bishop’s conversion.

Altar in Don Marcelo's house with Don Samuel's photo at the top.

Soon after he became bishop of San Cristóbal, Don Samuel went out to the countryside to visit the villages. In at least one place he accepted the hospitality of a large landowner who fed and housed him and provided him with a horse to get to the villages. The bishop would go out each morning and return in the evening to stay at the landowner’s hacienda. How generous the landowner was!

After a number of visits he asked the people if they appreciated his visits to their villages. “No,” they answered, surprising the bishop. “Why?” he asked. “Because it’s expensive for us.” They then explained that the landowner had them pay for the bishop’s expenses. The landowner was not generous but was again exploiting the poor. After that Don Samuel began to see with a clearer vision and began to take the side of the poor.

This, of course, did not please everyone, including some Vatican officials who appointed an auxiliary bishop, Monseñor Raul Vera, who some think was sent to rein in Don Samuel. Well, God works in mysterious ways. Monseñor Raul Vera also  had an experience which changed him. Now bishop of another diocese he is an outspoken defender of the poor and of human rights.

I left San Cristóbal filled with a deep joy at 6:30 am, Monday, January 30. (Incidentally that’s the anniversary of Gandhi’s death.) I had met good people and seen a beautiful city which, though there are many tourists, still has a feeling of being a real center for the people, especially the indigenous.

The next day I left Antigua, Guatemala, at 3:45 AM. The trip was long, the first hour or so in darkness.

Still in the dark, we came upon Guatemala City. Descending the road into the city, I saw the millions of lights of the city. At that point my heart was touched and I prayed for all the people there, remembering especially the abused, the poor, children suffering from hunger and those who seek to serve the poor and marginalized.

As I look back, perhaps Don Samuel had opened my heart a little more to the poor and inspired me to pray.

Thank you, Don Samuel.

Jtatic Samuel, as the indigenous called him.


Other photos of mine from San Cristóbal  de Las Casas can be found here in a Flickr set.

Chronology of my trip back was corrected about 4:30 pm, 3 February 2012.


John (Juancito) Donaghy said...

This Saturday's lectionary reading, Mark 6: 30 - 34. Jesus has compassion on the people he saw. The Greek word means "feeling with one's guts.

Looking back, that's a little of what I felt as I gazed on the lights of Guatemala City - not pity, but compassion, a "gut feeling" of solidarity with the people there.

It was a real gift of God for which I am grateful.

Charles said...

Let me guess: splagchnizomai

Thanks for this post. Samuel Ruiz has a special place in my heart, too.