Mexico's indigenous languages get nod from the Church

Pope Francis is known to want to reform traditional elements of the Vatican and bring it closer to ordinary Catholics

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As the bells toll at the church of Templo la Caridad in the picturesque colonial city of San Cristobal de las Casas, the local bishop leads a group of indigenous teenagers on the next step in their religious instruction.

Confirmation is an important rite of passage for any devout Catholic.

It is the moment in which they repeat the commitments and promises to God made on their behalf when they were baptised.

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When I hear the words in my own language, I feel like Jesus Christ himself is talking to me”

End Quote Maria Teresa Maya youth in Chiapas

But for these young people, the spoken word in the ceremony is particularly resonant. It is being conducted in Tzotzil, the main Mayan language in this part of Mexico.

For centuries, the Catholic Church in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas has only officially delivered church services in either Latin or Spanish.

"When the priests talk to me in Spanish, I don't know what they're saying or what they're explaining," says 16-year-old Maria Teresa.

Like around 65% of Chiapas' population, she is native Maya and speaks little Spanish.

"But when I hear the words in my own language, I understand everything and feel like Jesus Christ himself is talking to me."

Power of the word

Although Spanish remains the language of the Church in Mexico, generations of catechists and Catholic missionaries have translated the Bible into Tzotzil and Tzeltal, another widely spoken indigenous language in the region.

Churchgoers inside the Templo la Caridad Many churchgoers only speak a smattering of Spanish

Over the past seven years, the Diocese of San Cristobal - one of the oldest in the country - has led the calls for the Vatican to officially recognise the liturgy in Mayan languages.

That call was heeded in October when Pope Francis gave the green light for weekly mass and key Catholic rituals, such as confession and baptism, to be conducted in the two indigenous languages.

The auxiliary bishop for San Cristobal, the Right Reverend Enrique Diaz, says gaining recognition from Rome was a long and complicated process.

"This is the acceptance not of a simple translation but of a thorough study which captures the sense of the words of the liturgy and the Bible," he says as the clergy can be heard singing hymns in Tzotzil inside the church.

"It's also the expression of the spirit of a people, a very religious people who follow the Lord and carry God in their hearts."

Fresh approach

Bishop Diaz partly credits Pope Francis with having helped bring about this move.

Bishop Diaz in the Templo la Caridad church in San Cristobal de las Casas The Right Reverend Enrique Diaz welcomes the change

"Undoubtedly Pope Francis has brought a fresh approach," he says, arguing that the fact that the pontiff is Argentine has influenced his attitude towards Latin America.

"[Pope Francis] is closer to us both in terms of Latin American thinking and indigenous peoples.

"Even though there isn't such an indigenous presence in Argentina, he has spent time with indigenous communities and understands us well," says Bishop Diaz, who travelled to the Vatican to discuss the Church's changing role in Maya communities with the Pope.

Pope Francis at a meeting with indigenous leaders in Rio de Janeiro on 27 July, 2013 Pope Francis is said to be closer to indigenous peoples than his predecessors

But Mexican religious affairs analyst, Elio Masferrer, says Tzotzil has been unofficially used in church services in Chiapas for years.

He says its approval by Rome is part of a wider strategy by the Vatican.

"Strictly speaking, this is nothing new," he points out, saying that since the 1960s, the Catholic Church has believed that "the Revelation of the Word be delivered in keeping with the culture of each people".

Hearts and minds

Mr Masferrer argues that what is perhaps revolutionary, is that the move forms part of a wider softening of papal policy towards "indigenous Catholicism".

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Juan Gomez

If we only get to hear Mass in Spanish, we might as well go to sleep!”

End Quote Juan Gomez Trainee priest

The Catholic Church has been rapidly losing followers to more evangelical forms of Christianity. Even Anglican faiths, previously uncommon in the region, have been making inroads in parts of Mexico and Central America.

According to Mr Masferrer, the recognition of Tzotzil and Tzeltal is one of a series of measures taken by Rome to bolster support in indigenous communities.

In essence, he says, this is a hearts and minds operation.

One of those hearts and minds belongs to Juan Gomez.

A trainee priest at Templo la Caridad, he speaks just a smattering of Spanish. He says the decision by the Vatican was vital to the Church's appeal in his community.

Maya churchgoers in Templo la Caridad, San Cristobal de las Casas Young Maya churchgoers prefer to hear the liturgy in their indigenous language

"If we only get to hear Mass in Spanish, we might as well go to sleep!" he jokes.

The indigenous communities of Chiapas are some of the poorest in Mexico and the state has long been accused of ignoring local people's needs.

That the Church has at least recognised Tzotzil is a source of pride to Juan.

"Rome is very far from here. We'll never know it," he says. "We are the last and the poor, but they have acknowledged our language and we give thanks for that."

As Christmas approaches, midnight Mass in the Templo la Caridad will be celebrated in the only way the entire congregation understands, in Tzotzil.

The difference this year is that it comes with a blessing from Rome.

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