16 February 2016, The Tablet

Pope Francis tells indigenous Mexicans: you have much to teach us

Pope Francis compared the indigenous communities to the ancient Israelites enslaved in Egypt

Paying homage to the culture and ancient wisdom of Mexico's indigenous peoples, Pope Francis urged them to hold on to hope and condemned those who exploit their people and their land.

"Some have considered your values, culture and traditions to be inferior. Others, intoxicated by power, money and market trends, have stolen your lands or contaminated them," the Pope said at a Mass yesterday with representatives of Mexico's indigenous communities.

"You have much to teach us," he told the elders, activists and simple faithful gathered at a sports complex in San Cristobal de Las Casas, a city in Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, and a centre of advocacy and struggle for indigenous rights.

Chiapas, and particularly the Diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas, has been a centre of official Catholic support for indigenous culture, support that was not always shared by all of Mexico's bishops.

During his stay in the city, Pope Francis communicated the Vatican's official approval of the use of the local languages in liturgical prayer. Two of the languages - Tzotzil and Tzeltal - were used for some of the readings and prayers during the Pope's Mass. And, after the pope read his homily in Spanish, it was translated for the many in the crowd who speak only their Mayan tongue.

It was under Pope Francis that the diocese was allowed to start ordaining permanent deacons again in 2014 after ordering a 12-year suspension. The vast majority of the diocese's more than 300 permanent deacons are married leaders in their indigenous communities; the late Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia began ordaining large numbers of the leaders in a program of pastoral outreach that many saw as exaggerating the place of indigenous culture in the local church, but also as a potential first step toward pushing for married priests for indigenous communities.

As the pope toured the crowd in the popemobile, a priest led the people in chanting: "Welcome, pope of peace. Welcome, pope of mercy. Welcome, pope of justice. Welcome, pope of freedom. Welcome, pope of the struggle."

In a country rich in natural resources, but scarred by pollution and inequality, Pope Francis compared the indigenous communities to the ancient Israelites enslaved in Egypt, and he assured them that God hears their cry for dignity and respect and their longing to protect their cultures.

In responding to the oppression of the Israelites, the pope said, God showed them his true face, "the face of a father who suffers as he sees the pain, mistreatment and lack of justice for his children".

God's son rose "so that darkness may not have the last word and dawn may not cease to rise on the lives of his sons and daughters," the pope told the people.

The yearning for freedom and a bright future is something to hold on to and keep alive, he said. People must resist attempts others make to silence their yearning, "anesthetise our soul" or "lull our children" into thinking that nothing can change and dreams will never come true.

His words echoed the comments he’d made the day before at Mass in Ecatepec where he urged the faithful to step up and work together to "make this blessed land of Mexico a land of opportunities" so that emigration wasn’t the only option for people.

The main road leading to the sports centre was decorated with banners featuring photos of local people and quotations from Pope Francis, many of them from his encyclical, "Laudato Si'," on safeguarding creation.

At the Mass, the pope praised the indigenous people's wisdom in caring for the earth and encouraged their efforts to defend it from further destruction.

"The environmental challenge that we are experiencing and its human causes, affect us all and demands our response," he said. "We can no longer remain silent before one of the greatest environmental crises in world history."

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