By Barb Arland-Fye
DAVENPORT — In 1967, two Sisters from the Congregation of the Humility of Mary (CHM) traveled to Mexico as part of a trip to consider their community’s involvement in missionary work in Latin America. The community, based in the Davenport Diocese, was responding to a papal request encouraging religious communities to perform missionary work in Latin America. Sisters Bernadine Pieper, then CHM president, and Ana María Orozco, a native of Mexico, went on a fact-finding mission with a list of a half-dozen dioceses to visit. “Ana and I went to the closest of these, Chiapas,” Sr. Pieper recalled in an interview published in the 1993 CHM Assembly Flyer, which celebrated the community’s 25 years in foreign missions.
Bishop Samuel Ruiz García of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas welcomed the visiting Sisters and “took us around in a little plane flying so close to the mountains it was scary,” Sr. Pieper said in the interview. “His explanation of the need for Sisters for health needs and for education was so compelling that Sr. Ana María and I decided it would be best … to start a mission there.”
That commitment was the beginning of a relationship of solidarity and friendship the CHMs nurtured with Bishop Ruiz, 86, who died Jan. 24, and the people of Chiapas. His death received international attention because of his human rights advocacy and his mediation work between the Mexican government and the indigenous Zapatista National Liberation Army.
The Sisters will honor Bishop Ruiz with a Mass Feb. 23 at 11:40 a.m. in the Magnificat Chapel of the CHM Center in Davenport, the city where he received the 1996 Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award.
“Our community has had such a long, wonderful relationship with Bishop Ruiz. We really have lost a friend,” said CHM Vice President Sister Johanna Rickl, who served as a missionary in the San Cristóbal diocese for about 13 years.
Sisters Orozco and Angélica Inda were the first CHMs to serve as missionaries in Chiapas, arriving in October 1968. Today, the community has one missionary in Chiapas, Sister Mary Penelope Wink who has served 35 years there. By e-mail she shared a reflection about Bishop Ruiz, who people called “jTatik” — which means “our father” in several Mayan Indian dialects present in Chiapas:
“I cherish my experiences with jTatik Samuel for many reasons, but I will prioritize two. First was his humility which was best expressed by his openness of mind, heart and embracing arms. He listened to everyone and discerned with a prayerful heart and an extraordinary mind what was best — in some cases with great confidence, and in others, accepting roads that were not his originally.
“The second was his commitment to the poor and marginalized and his willingness to live out the consequences of that commitment. He shared everything from ideas, tears, joys, spirituality and experiences to economic sharing of what he received, the bishop’s house. In a word, he was an extraordinary, loving pastor following Christ.”
Sr. Orozco, who served nearly 40 years in Chiapas before retiring in 2004, reflected on ministering to the indigenous population of Tzotzils, Zinacantecos and Tzeltals. Although Sr. Orozco had spent 20 years prior to her mission work teaching Spanish at Marycrest College in Davenport, her training was in medicine. In Chiapas she served as a “witch doctor,” she says jokingly, tending to illnesses and injuries with limited resources and a lot of creativity.
Sr. Orozco said Bishop Ruiz was always concerned about the well-being of the Sisters and the poor and indigenous people he served. He was a strong advocate of human rights for the indigenous people. But along with rights came responsibilities, the bishop believed. “No matter how poor or how wealthy we are, we have responsibilities,” Sr. Orozco said. In pointing out injustice and seeking to bring about change, Bishop Ruiz faced criticism and death threats. A Catholic News Service obituary stated that “his remarks against the powerful landlord class were construed by some — including the Vatican — as originating in Marxist class theory, rather than the Gospel.”
Sr. Rickl said Bishop Ruiz had a good sense of humor and enjoyed laughter, but he was serious when it came to ensuring that pastoral services in his diocese would be provided on an equal basis and follow Jesus’ preferential option for the poor. That meant helping the indigenous realize that God doesn’t want them to be exploited, she said. Bishop Ruiz believed “that God’s salvific message really is spoken through the poor.”
The legacy of Bishop Ruiz
A biography released by the San Cristóbal Diocesan Communications Office stated that the late Bishop Samuel Ruiz García, 86, left a legacy that included the following elements:
• Promoted the integration of the indigenous population into the Church and society.
• Focused on the poor and the liberation of the oppressed.
• Defended human rights, denounced injustices and arbitrary power before any tribunal.
• Guided the Church to follow the dictums of the Second Vatican Council. Embraced all the cultures, men and women, into a universal Church.
• Fostered ecumenism not only with other Christian groups, but with all religions.
• Worked toward united pastoral work with shared responsibilities.
• Created a permanent diaconate among the indigenous people.
• Sought unity in diversity, and worked toward the reconciliation of all communities.
(Translated by Sister Luz Maria Orozco)