Deacon Anselmo Hernandez received a call on a recent Saturday afternoon while walking down the main street of this indigenous community of Mexico’s southern Chiapas state, advising him of a neighbor who had died that afternoon. Within an hour, he had blessed the casket, led the family in prayers and read with them from the Bible. “There are not many priests here so we offer them assistance whenever possible,” Hernandez, 64, said of his role as a deacon serving the Guadalupe barrio. “There will be a Mass tomorrow with a priest.” Communities such as Bachajon have come to depend on indigenous deacons like Hernandez, who play an important part in serving the church and evangelizing remote regions of Chiapas state. In the Diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas, priests’ services are in short supply and the mostly indigenous population — many speaking Mayan languages — has abandoned the Catholic Church in droves. Such is the shortage in Bachajon, set in the highlands region of Chiapas, that locals simply call indigenous deacons in times of need. “The priests (here) are a support for the work that the deacons do,” said Jesuit Father Jose Aviles, vicar for peace and justice in the Diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas. “They are the real pastors.” …That pastoral approach, promoted also as potentially alleviating the perennial shortage of priests, attracted unfavorable Vatican scrutiny and was banned almost immediately after Bishop Ruiz retired in 2000. But with the election of Pope Francis, the ordination of indigenous deacons — all married — has resumed in rural Chiapas, while liturgical texts translated into Mayan languages also have been approved. Pope Francis visits San Cristobal de las Casa Feb. 15, where he will celebrate a Mass for indigenous people. Planners said he will read from Scripture and pray in Tzotzil and Tzeltal languages. The celebration also will include 300 indigenous deacons, including Deacon Hernandez, who will read from the Gospel of Matthew in Tzeltal. Proponents in the diocese see the papal visit as a validation of their pastoral approach of incorporating indigenous communities into the church on their own terms.
Photo: CNS/David Agren