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La Liga de Las Americas

Professor explores Catholicism south of the border

By Deanna Woolf

“I knew that some things were going to change me academically, but I didn’t expect it to affect me at a personal level.”

Dr. Richard Gaillardetz, UT Thomas and Margaret Murray and James J. Bacik Professor of Catholic Studies, is speaking about his latest research trip, seated in a cozy corner of his office on a rainy Ohio morning.

Dr. Richard Gaillardetz, right, interviews Bishop Samuel Ruiz of San Cristobal de las Casas.

And while everything seems safe, secure and certain in Scott Hall, the stories about his visit paint a different picture of life in Chiapas, México—Zapatista forces controlling entire municipalities, Roman Catholic leaders working with Mayan descendents to preserve their traditions, and Gaillardetz interviewing a former bishop who arrived in a bulletproof van with armed guards.

Gaillardetz's visit to México earlier this year was part of a project titled, “The Church in Global Perspective,” funded in part by a $44,910 grant from the Louisville Institute. His trip, as well as ones to South Africa at the end of August and the Philippines in January 2006, will help him investigate how church leaders are interacting with people from native faith traditions and how they are defining the role of the church in these countries.

Gaillardetz described Chiapas as the poorest state in México and as a “tinderbox” — a place where the Zapatista forces, Mexican government officials and paramilitary groups clash.

“We had to get permission to enter the Zapatista-controlled municipalities,” he said. “At the outside of each one was a heavily armed post of the Mexican army. The guards there would check your license plates and write them down for each car that came in and out. Honestly, I was more afraid of the government soldiers than the Zapatistas.”

The dangerous atmosphere was especially apparent when Gaillardetz was visited by Samuel Ruiz, who was the bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas for 40 years. "He was driven for an hour and half in a bulletproof van to see me with three armed guards. There have been threats against him," Gaillardetz explained. Ruiz is targeted because he has subtly challenged the treatment of women in the country. He is also a critic of the powerful, wealthy landowners who disenfranchised the Mayan descendents.

Interviewing Ruiz, Gaillardetz found it interesting that the former bishop had changed his initial stance on the Catholic Church's role in the region. "When he began, he was a meztizo [indicating someone of mixed European and native heritage] and very conservative. He tried to make the local people learn Spanish and stop using Tzotzil [their native language]," Gaillardetz said. "But then he realized this was killing their culture."

Ruiz's new stance was manifested in the mixing of Mayan elements with Christianity. For example, one of the local Catholic churches held morning prayers on a nearby mountain—a practice with roots in ancient tradition.

“In Mayan culture, there is a belief that the gods reside on the mountains and that by touching them, you can be close to them,” Gaillardetz said.

Another thing Gaillardetz noticed was the level of accountability of church leaders in Chiapas. He watched as a village leader lectured a priest about not upholding the ideals of the church in his dealings with a candidate who was preparing for ministry as a deacon. "The priest then got down on his knees and went around to each of the leaders and the candidate and asked for their forgiveness. There was such accountability."

He paused for a moment. "Then that made me think of accountability issues here with the sexual abuse scandals. Obviously, the worst part was the abuse that occurred. But I think that beyond that, the real scandal of the whole thing was the failure of the Catholic Church leadership to be accountable to the people."

In the end, Gaillardetz hopes his next two trips prove to be "just as enriching, but not as risky ... I'm happy I did it," he said. “But it was a little bit more dicey than what I normally would like.”

Editor’s Note: Deanna Woolf is an interim staff writer with the Office of Marketing and Communications at The University of Toledo.





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