Monsignor Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel, Bishop Emeritus of San Cristobal de Las Casas, responsible for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Mexican Episcopal Conference (MEC) and collaborator of Zenit, will be created Cardinal tomorrow morning, November 28, 2020.
Pope Francis is holding the 7th Consistory of Cardinals of his pontificate and the Church will have 13 new members in the College of Cardinals. Nine of them are younger than eighty; hence, they are Electors with the right to take part in a future Conclave. Added to them are four who are older than eighty and are Non-Electors.
Monsignor Arizmendi has had a wide experience in the Church in Mexico, primarily in the care of the indigenous communities, and as a member of the Department of Culture and Education of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM).
He was ordained a priest on August 25, 1963, in the then Diocese of Toluca, today an Archdiocese. He served as a priest in it until 1991, when Pope John Paul II appointed him Bishop of Tapachula, Chiapas, a city bordering Guatemala, and one of the main points of passage for Central Americans to Mexico.
Nine years later, Saint John Paul II appointed him Bishop of San Cristobal de Las Casas, diocese in the region of Los Altos de Chiapas. This circumscription is known for its indigenous peoples and is located in one of Mexico’s poorest states.
In 2015, on his 75th birthday, the canonical age in which a resignation can be tendered to the Pontiff, he did so to Pope Francis. It was accepted two years later and, since then, he has been Bishop Emeritus of San Cristobal de Las Casas.
After receiving the news that he would become Mexico’s seventh Cardinal, a few days later, he talked in an exclusive interview with Zenit. Every week he shares with Zenit his interesting reflections on current topics.
Arrival of the News
During the Angelus last October 25, Pope Francis announced the date of the Consistory and the names of the Cardinals elected. Monsignor Arizmendi said he never expected such news. “As every weekend, I was in Chiltepec, my birthplace, a small mainly farming village. I began the day with the Liturgy of the Hours, totally ignorant of the announcement the Pope had just made.”
“In my prayer in the Office of Reading, I usually meditate on the message of the previous Angelus.” “I opened my computer and began to see many congratulatory messages. I went to the Vatican’s page and saw the news, with astonishment and anguish. Between tears and prayers, my family and my countrymen found out. I celebrated the Eucharist with them at noon, as I do every Sunday,” he continued.
A Consistory in the Midst of the Pandemic
On the reactions of his relatives and friends, he said “the great majority reacted with much joy, feeling proud and happy for this appointment. “Many were thinking of accompanying me to Rome, but they understand that the pandemic has put many limitations. They are accompanying me with more prayers, which I need and for which I’m grateful.”
After the initial surprise, the Bishop Emeritus confessed that in the days prior to the Consistory he lived “with tensions, given the sanitary restrictions in Italy. Like everyone I’m exposed to being infected with the coronavirus, and this would hinder me from taking part in person. Moreover, I am tense over the preparations for the new clothing, which I’m not used to.”
Finally, following strictly all the measures established for the prevention of COVID-19, Monsignor Arizmendi is now in the Vatican and, God willing, tomorrow he will be present in the ceremony for the creation of Cardinals.
Pastoral Service to the Indians
The future Mexican Cardinal said that this title granted by the holy Father, more than a personal recognition is a tribute to the indigenous peoples of Mexico and to the Bishops, priests, and religious that serve those communities.
Asked about his experience as Bishop of Tapachula and of San Cristobal de Las Casas, and especially about the meaning of the commission that Pope John Paul II gave him, he replied: “I am fruit of my family, of my native village, of the Archdiocese of Toluca that formed me. They are my roots, which I never wanted to cut. My village now belongs to the diocese of Tenancingo, which I value a lot.”
“On March 7, 1991, I was consecrated Bishop of Tapachula and I was there for nine years. From May 1, 2000, to January 3, 2018, I served in San Cristobal de Las Casas. I’ll never cease acknowledging that I am a son of these Churches, which have formed me and have made me what I am. I owe everything to them, as mediations of God’s merciful love,” he added.
The diocese of Tapacula “implied for me the embodiment of a pluricultural reality, as there are Chinese, Japanese, Germans, and many Guatemalans there. When I arrived there were some 50,000 Guatemalan refugees, who had left their country because of the war that so harmed those brother people. Moreover, it’s the passage of thousands of migrants, and I had to continue with the work of my predecessor, Luis Miguel Canton Marin, to assist them humanly.”
“The diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas, erected in 1539, with its first Bishop Bartolome de Las Casas, and presided over for 40 years by my distinguished predecessor, Monsignor Samuel Ruiz Garcia, meant for me a painful and compromising challenge, as there were many that profoundly appreciated I’ Tarik Samuel, and others that rejected him. I found myself in a very divided diocese, especially on the indigenous question,” he explained.
Nevertheless, “thanks to the Holy Spirit and everyone’s good heart, we were able to make progress in the inculturation of the Church and of the Gospel, and in the process of ecclesial reconciliation, which my successor, Monsignor Rodrigo Aguilar Martinez continues with great pastoral love.”
The Pope’s Visit in 2016
Pope Francis went to San Cristobal de Las Casas on February 15, 2016, and he was able to observe the life of the Church in that place. Monsignor Arizmendi believes that this visit was “an eloquent sign for all the Indians; they felt they were taken into account and that they are of worth in the Church and in the society.”
The Bishop suggested to the Pope that he have lunch with 13 Indians ”and he accepted gladly. It was a sublime moment of fraternal and very close communion. In many conversations with the papal masters of ceremonies, we were able to have many signs of Catholic inculturation in the Mass.”
The Present Situation in the Diocese
In regard to the present situation in the territory, the future Cardinal said that it “continues to be one of poverty and marginalization. I was able to see the progress made in education, health, ways of communication, electrification, etc., but those communities continue to live the lack of opportunities for a more fitting life.”
The main challenges continue to be “on one hand, better attention to those fundamental factors of integral development and, on the other, the humanitarian service to the many migrants that continue to pass by there; also the process of inculturation for biblical and liturgical translations, and to bring Indian hearts closer, which are divided among themselves over agrarian, social, political and religious questions, and between Indians and Mestizos. This is an endless process,” he remarked.
Facet as Columnist
In addition to his pastoral work as priest and Bishop, Monsignor Arizmendi has spent over 40 years writing for different means, civil and religious, among them, Zenit; his weekly comments on the ecclesial reality are followed by many people.
In regard to his facet as a writer, the Pastor said that it arose in 1979, after Pope Saint John Paul II’s first trip to Mexico. “When he returned to Rome, I felt it was necessary to help our people to recall and digest his messages, which were very profound. To do so, I requested a local newspaper to allow me to write a weekly column,” he explained.
I have done it, since then, “not because I have many capabilities, but because of the urgency to evangelize the different national and global events with the light of the Word of God and the ecclesial Magisterium.”
“I’m convinced that this is a task the Lord commends to us, and we cannot remain at oeace just commenting and lamenting what happens, but we must offer the world the light we have received. I don’t write because I have plenty of time, because I have nothing to do, to seek publicity, or for economic interest (no one pays me anything), but to light a match in the midst of the darkness,” he specified.
Assist the Bishop of Rome
After enumerating the Cardinals’ names in the Angelus of October 25, Pope Francis requested prayer for each of them so that “confirming their adherence to Christ, they help me in my ministry as Bishop of Rome, for the good of all the holy faithful People of God.”
Questioned on the meaning of these words of the Holy Father, Arizmendi said: “They imply for me to continue giving this evangelizing service, not only in the articles I write weekly but in whatever is necessary.”
“Frequently, the Bishops ask me to accompany the Spiritual Exercises of their priests; to help in the sanctification of the clergy is a task of the first order. If the Pope entrusts a specific task to us, we must be ready to collaborate in his Petrine mission. At 80 I don’t think I’ll be entrusted with something more, but only continue carrying out the evangelizing service, which is not only Peter’s task, but that of all Jesus’ disciples,” he stressed.
Continue with Service
Asked about how his life will be after being created Cardinal, Zenit’s collaborator said: “I hope nothing changes, and that all continues the same. Many people continue calling me ‘Father Felipe,’ ‘brother Bishop,” and I hope they won’t address me with a Cardinal’s titles!”
“My present service is to listen to people who want to talk about their lives, to hear their confessions, to give talks, now through Zoom, to accompany indigenous processes in the country and in Latin America, as I’ve been able to do from CELAM,” he said.
“I pray to the Spirit, not vaingloriously with this title, as titles aren’t the most important in life, but the fraternal service of love. What is decisive, what makes us worth more, is to love God and our neighbor,” he notes.
Moment of Gratitude
This recognition of Monsignor Felipe Arizmendi is a moment to thank God and the Prelate expressed his gratitude “of course to God, to the Virgin, to Pope Francis and to his immediate predecessors, to my family, to my birthplace, to the dioceses that formed me. And I implore their prayers so that I’ll be faithful to the Lord and to His People.”
From Zenit, we thank the Lord for your presence and closeness to us and we will accompany you tomorrow with our prayers.
Translation by Virginia M. Forrester