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Pope praises indigenous people during Mexico mass

Published 15/02/2016

A billboard in Zinacantan, near San Cristobal de las Casas, promotes the visit of Pope Francis to Chiapas state (AP)
A billboard in Zinacantan, near San Cristobal de las Casas, promotes the visit of Pope Francis to Chiapas state (AP)

Pope Francis has denounced the centuries-old exploitation and social exclusion of Mexico's indigenous people.

The pontiff celebrated Mexico's Indians during a visit to the southern state of Chiapas, a centre of indigenous culture, where he presided over a Mass in three native languages thanks to a new Vatican decree approving their use in liturgy.

In his homily, history's first Latin American pope melded two of his core concerns: appreciation for indigenous cultures of the Americas and the need to care for the environment.

"The environmental challenge that we are experiencing and its human causes affects us all and demands our response," Francis said.

"We can no longer remain silent before one of the greatest environmental crises in world history."

"In this regard, you have much to teach us," he added, speaking under clear blue skies at a sports complex in the mountain city of San Cristobal de las Casas.

The soft sounds of marimbas accompanied the opening of the Mass in front of a replica of the brilliant yellow and red facade of the Sans Cristobal de las Casas cathedral, which Francis was scheduled to visit.

Crowds chanted "Francis friend, San Cristobal is with you" as he arrived.

Some 500,000 faithful were expected to see the pope in the city, including about 100,000 who gathered on the dirt field for the Mass.

The visit, at the midway mark of the pontiff's five-day trip to Mexico, is also aimed at boosting the faith in the least Catholic state in Mexico.

Francis has already issued a sweeping apology for the Catholic Church's colonial-era crimes against indigenous people in Latin America.

On Monday he was celebrating their culture in ways the local church hierarchy has often sought to play down, in a clear demonstration of his belief that Indians have an important role to play in Mexico today.

Worshippers began filing shortly after midnight into the site of the Mass, which included readings, prayers and hymns in the three main indigenous languages of Chiapas: Tzeltal, Tzotzil and Chol, which are spoken by just over one million people, according to Mexico's latest census.

The pope was presenting an official decree authorising the languages to be used, some 50 years after the Second Vatican Council paved the way for Mass to be celebrated in the vernacular rather than in Latin.

Francis has insisted his is a "poor church, for the poor". After the Mass, he was scheduled to hear testimony from a handful of Chiapas families about the hardships they face.

"He comes to redeem an entire struggle by the people," said the Rev. Marcelino Perez, an indigenous priest who was charged with translating the homily into Tzotzil.

The pope has frequently expressed admiration for indigenous peoples, particularly their sense of custodianship of the environment.

As archbishop in Argentina, he was heavily responsible for a major document of the entire Latin American church hierarchy in which bishops praised the harmonious way indigenous people live with nature.

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