CHIAPAS, Mexico — Pope Francis paid tribute to Mexico’s indigenous communities Monday, saying they have been “exploited and excluded” for centuries and lauding them as an example of how to care for Mother Nature.
Francis also said that many of the indigenous residents, who according to the government represent 10 percent of the total Mexican population, foster longing for a land without “oppression, mistreatment, and humiliation.”
Celebrating a Mass in San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas, one of the poorest states of Mexico, the pope addressed what have become two of his main concerns: native cultures in the Americas and environmental protection.
Three Mayan languages, Tzotzil, Tzeltal, and Cho’ol, were used during the Mass, made possible by a recent Vatican decree allowing them to be used in Catholic worship.
Mexico has 58 indigenous communities, many of which were represented at the Mass.
“In the heart of man and in the memory of many of our peoples is imprinted this yearning for a land, for a time when human corruption will be overcome by fraternity, when injustice will be conquered by solidarity and when violence will be silenced by peace,” Francis said Monday, the fourth day of his visit.
The pope compared Israel and Mexico’s indigenous communities, saying that “the People of God” experienced “slavery and the Pharaoh’s tyranny, endured suffering and oppression to the point where God said, ‘Enough! No more! I have seen their affliction, I have heard their cry, I know their sufferings.’”
“It is an experience, a reality which is conveyed by a phrase prayed in Popol Vuh and born of the wisdom accumulated in these lands since time immemorial,” he continued, invoking the region’s native culture.
Popol Vuh, or “Book of the Community” is a set of mytho-historical narratives from neighboring Guatemala, dated from before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors.
“One hears the yearning to live in freedom, there is a longing which contemplates a promised land where oppression, mistreatment and humiliation are not the currency of the day,” the first Latin American pope said, saying that some have tried to silence this yearning “to anaesthetize our soul.”
“There have been endeavors to subdue and lull our children and young people into a kind of lassitude by suggesting that nothing can change, that their dreams can never come true,” he said.
Faced with these attempts, the pope decried, “creation itself also raises an objection.”
Francis told the indigenous that when it comes to care for the Earth, they know how to interact with nature, which they respect as a “source of food, a common home, and an altar of human sharing.”
The pope quoted from a 2007 document of the Latin American bishops issued in Aparecida, Brazil, of which he was the chief editor while still serving as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
In his homily Monday, Francis asked youth to “cling to the wisdom of their elders” and to fend off a “a culture that seeks to suppress all cultural heritage and features in pursuit of a homogenized world.”
The pontiff’s message on Monday resonated with Mexico’s indigenous community, in part because it has long felt sidelined.
Three decades after the emergence of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, an indigenous-led rebel group that demanded social, cultural, and land rights, Chiapas and its indigenous population remain firmly on the periphery of Mexican society.
The state Francis visited Monday has poverty, inequality, and hunger rates that are among the highest in the country. More than 70 percent of the population in Chiapas is indigenous, 36 percent of whom do not speak Spanish.
Catalina Martinez, an indigenous woman from Michoacan, spent 30 hours on a bus to attend the papal Mass in San Cristobal de las Casas.
“We want for Pope Francis to bring us peace and justice,” she said, adding that “justice means that we’re all equal, that there’s no discrimination, because we, Indians, are also people.”
“In Mexico we don’t have this equality,” Martinez said, surrounded by dozens of people that had traveled with her who nodded their heads supporting her statement.
Beyond the languages used during the liturgy, various communities were represented in the celebration. For instance, Francis wore vestments made by Tzotziles and Tzetzales artisans and local instruments, such as marimbas, a xylophone-like instrument, accompanied the choir, which sang in several languages.
Three indigenous families presented gifts at the altar, which included funds from throughout Chiapas for the Holy Year of Mercy, which will be used to build two centers for migrants.
Before Francis arrived, the crowd sang several short songs greeting Francis and calling attention to the themes of his papacy. Lyrics included, “Welcome to the pope of peace, the pope of mercy, the pope of justice, the pope of freedom, the pope of struggle.”
Another song described Francis as the pope “of the Church of the poor, the Church that is born of the people, who asks the bishops to be close to the people and his priests to be next to the poor.”
A replica of the yellow and red façade of the local cathedral was set behind the altar, adorned with terracotta figures depicting local animals. Francis visited the cathedral later in the day, where he briefly met with sick and elderly people.
He also prayed in front of the tomb of Bishop Samuel Ruiz, a local hero known as a fierce champion of the poor who was beloved in the indigenous community.
“He was a bishop to his people,” said the Rev. Bernardo Rangel, a communications professional for the Diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas. “He had a pastoral project that included incorporating the laity as catechists and the ordination of deacons which allowed for the faith to spread in the remote zones of the region.”
“By praying in the cathedral, Francis not only honors his pastoral plan, but also the heart of a shepherd who ate, cried, and shared the pain of this people,” he said.
But Ruiz was assailed by politicians, the Mexican Catholic hierarchy, and even the Vatican, which accused him of being a Marxist, training a generation of deacons and catechists not in their Catholic faith, but in political revolution.
But Ruiz is nonetheless considered a hero of Latin America’s liberation theology movement, and long before Francis penned his environmental manifesto Laudato Si’ and spoke of taking the Church to the outskirts of society, Ruiz included in his diocese a ministry for care of Mother Earth, spoke of social justice, and incorporated elements of indigenous traditions into the liturgy.
“Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s ‘circle’ in the Latin-American Church back in the 1970-80s [was composed of] nationalists who deeply valued the continent’s indigenous roots,” said papal biographer Austen Ivereigh.
“Ruiz was an iconic figure for them,” he said.
Ivereigh said Ruiz embodied the attempt to “inculturate” the Gospel and to build leaders who could promote the rights of the indigenous.
“They regarded the hostility Ruiz faced from Rome as symptomatic of the Vatican’s centralism and distance from the pastoral realities of the Latin-American Church,” Ivereigh said.
“By praying silently at Ruiz’s tomb and permitting the use of native languages in the liturgy, Francis is both paying homage to a great pastor, and signaling a distinct shift in the attitude from Rome,” he said.
Later on Monday Francis will address the local families, and on Tuesday he heads to Morelia, a city hit hard by drug cartels and organized crime.
Chiapas is the primary state through which Central Americans trying to reach the United States enter Mexico, but Francis steered clear of migration, instead focusing on the plight of indigenous communities in Mexico.
On Wednesday, the final day of his trip to Mexico, Francis will visit Ciudad Juarez, which sits just across from El Paso, Texas. It is there that he’s expected to condemn the violence that has driven people from their homes and push for humane migration laws.
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