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The following succinct article on the practice being observed in a Mexican Diocese as experienced by a Scottish priest is a powerful account of what can be achieved by trusting the laity and making use of their talents. This piece appeared in the April Editionof Open House, the Scottish Catholic Journal, and I am grateful to the editor, Mary Cullen, and of course Fr McLaughlin, for their permission to circulate it

Eileen Fitzpatrick, ACTA Chair

A perspective from the South

Fr Henry McLaughlin is a priest of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh who has been a volunteer missionary in Latin America for 34 years.  Here he offers a perspective from Mexico on the debate prompted by the shortage of priests in St Andrews and Edinburgh.

In 1995 I arrived in Southern Mexico.  I knocked on the door of the diocesan offices of San Cristobal de las Casas.  A lady opened the door and, confident she was the bishop’s secretary, I requested to see the bishop.  He wasn’t there but I explained that I wished to see him with the purpose of volunteering to work in the diocese.  I left happy that through the secretary I should soon be able to see the bishop.

In the next ten days I had a few visits but never finding the bishop in.  However she introduced me to the vicar general, and also the vicar in charge of the pastoral work and it was good to talk to them.  About a week later the secretary informed me that the bishop was still not around.  He had been bitten by a dog and because of his diabetes the healing was slow.  However she said I had been accepted to work in the diocese.

It was quite a while afterwards that I learnt that I was mistaken in thinking she was his secretary.  She was a nun and in May the Diocesan Assembly had voted her in as chancellor of the diocese for three years.  Others such as Fr Felipe Toussaint was voted in as vicar general, again for three years.  Bishop Samuel trusted the Assembly and the Holy Spirit and ratified the choice of the Assembly.  Three years later, Maggie, a member of a Lay Institute, was elected as the new chancellor.

There was a low intensity war being waged, and the Bishop had many more serious matters than me to concern him.  I suspect I was a priest in his diocese for months before the chancellor and vicar general informed him that I had been accepted.

Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia was a close friend of Archbishop Oscar Romero, and like him also a great prophet and defender of the poor.  Not only did he allow the Assembly to choose the Vicar General and other members of the Curia, but he also trusted the people they chose. 

The diocese has over 8,000 very active catechists.  A number have no schooling but got friends to teach them to read so they could read Word of God.  The average level of academic studies is probably at primary four.  Some are exceptionally intelligent, the vast majority are very good people and many extremely wise.  They receive no payment, and many have to meet their own expenses such as transport.  There are also a number of married Indian deacons and laity delegated to administer sacraments of baptism, marriage and Communion.

Most here are denied access to a weekly Eucharist.  However in spite of that, there is a strong vibrant Catholic faith nourished by the breaking of the Word.  The eyes of the people sparkle when they divide up into small groups and share their understanding of the Gospel.

By and large we in Scotland have missed a great opportunity to implement Vatican II and really allow and encourage the participation of the laity.  Every Sunday we have, to a very large extent, missed a wonderful opportunity of nourishment by not adequately sharing the Word of God.

In this South Mexican Diocese, we had a wonderful diocesan synod.  From 1995 to 1999 there was a two way non-stop consultation and communication between the diocesan offices and our 2,500 mainly Indian rural communities.

Bishop Samuel Ruiz returned inspired from the Vatican Council.  ‘The collegial Council spirit gave rise in our diocese to a search for structures of communion (in our Assembly, pastoral teams, councils and coordination), as being closer to the spirit of the gospel than top down structures…  Visitors have noticed that here authority rather than being the domain of power, is shared and exercised as a service which takes into account the view of the humblest and most distant community…  This is due to the option for participation, the ecclesial co- responsibility and the pastoral work of the gospel.’ (cf Foreword of Third Diocesan Synod).

More than once I heard people saying that no bishop in Mexico delegates his power like Bishop Samuel.  And no bishop in Mexico has such moral authority.