San Cristobal De Las Casas, Feb 7: Pope Francis' visit to the heavily indigenous Mexican state of Chiapas appears aimed at celebrating the region's "Indian church," a mix of Catholicism and indigenous culture once considered a thorn in the side of standard liturgy by the Vatican.
The inclusion of pine boughs and eggs, the Mayan faithful's references to "God the Father and Mother" and the use of indigenous elements in Masses long caused church officials to bristle. Not so with history's first Latin American pope, who the Vatican said will present a decree during his Feb. 15 visit authorizing the use of indigenous languages. The Chiapas Mass itself would include readings and songs in three different indigenous languages.
"Within the church there have always been errors," said Felipe Arizmendi, the Bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas, the colonial city where Francis will preside over Mass. "So we recognize that many times, we have not given them (the indigenous) their place."
Francis' visit comes amid strong challenges to the church in the southern state, including huge inroads by evangelical Protestants and grinding poverty in a region rich with coffee, Mayan ruins, pine-covered hills and jungles.
Chiapas has the high poverty rate in Mexico at 76.2 percent. The challenges have always included the church's relations with indigenous communities who have struggled for centuries to maintain their traditions and independence, sometimes embracing and sometimes clashing with the hierarchy.
Religious practices in some communities encourage rampant alcohol abuse, crushing debts and autocratic local bosses known as "caciques." "Traditional" Catholic towns often require impoverished residents to go into debt to pay for annual, alcohol-fueled festivals for the local patron saint.
Most of the food, drink, flowers and fireworks for the festivals are bought from the local bosses, who sell them to residents on credit at usurious rates. In some communities, residents have expelled or ostracized any inhabitant who converts to Protestantism, often taking their lands or possessions, or denying them access to basic services like water or electricity.