Mexico: The New “Mayan” Rite of the Mass (1)

April 17, 2023
Bishops, priests, and faithful around the Mayan altar

As reported in a recent brief, a “Mayan” rite of the Mass is being prepared in Mexico. The study is already advanced and a draft has emerged. A group of Mexican bishops has in fact gathered in the diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas with Msgr. Aurelio Garcia Macias, undersecretary of the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments to work there.

Prepared in February, the draft will be submitted to the Mexican bishops before being sent to Rome in May. Before reading the text, it is useful to know the context.

The Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas

For decades, the diocese was under the watchful eye of Rome. At issue is syncretism, community decision-making, left-wing political activism, and the ordination of hundreds of permanent deacons associated with their wives, to achieve an “indigenous church.”

Msgr. Samuel Ruiz Garcia, bishop of the diocese from 1960 to 2000, was at the origin of the movement. Msgr. Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel, created cardinal in 2020, bishop of the diocese from 2000 to 2017, continued in the line of his predecessor, which raised a number of concerns in Rome.

The case of permanent deacons associated with their wives

In 2000, the Vatican requested that, when ordaining a permanent deacon, the bishop not lay hands on the wife's head, as was the practice. In 2005, the Congregation for Divine Worship suspended “the ordinations of permanent deacons until the underlying ideological problem has been resolved” and the concept of priestly celibacy is reinforced.

Moreover “the formation of candidates for the permanent diaconate must be interrupted.” The diocese then had 340 married permanent deacons and a quarter of this number of priests: the parishes were mainly run by permanent deacons and their wives. In 2007, Rome asked to remove from the diocesan annual directory the indication that these deacons could become married priests.

Encouragement from Pope Francis

Cardinal Arizmendi recounts how, as early as 2013, he was encouraged by the new pope. Francis told him that the permanent diaconate could be a very opportune solution in indigenous communities and that it should be encouraged. This is recommended in Querida Amazonia, no. 92.

A few months later the prelate explained that “we were authorized to continue these ordinations.” Francis thus encouraged a permanent indigenous diaconate with wives considered as co-deacons, but he also encouraged the development of an indigenous rite.

General Elements

Several elements figure in the Amazon Synod of 2019: strengthening of the liturgical role of women (towards a female diaconate), preponderant role of married indigenous deacons (towards married priests) and liturgical inculturation mixed with idolatrous elements (cf. cult of the Pachamama). As for the ancient Mayan religion, it is steeped in polytheism, animism, the belief in communication with the ancestors, and even human sacrifice.

There is already an advanced inculturation of Mayan rites, approved by the local bishop. A number of these elements would be integrated into the current draft.

Incensing of the altar by women

It is an ancient function of Mayan women to incense objects such as the Mayan altar; this function is repeated at Mass, with the same type of incense burner: women incense the altar at different times during Mass with a Mayan censer.

Ritual dances

The Mayan culture uses ritual dances: these are planned for the end of the Mass. These dances are believed to be means of communicating with gods and spirits. The World History website explains: “Dance rituals were practiced to communicate with the gods. The dances featured lavish costumes depicting the faces of the deities.… The Mayans thought that by dressing and acting like a god, they could communicate with him.”

The Earth, “mother goddess”

Cardinal Arizmendi explains: “In 'Indian theology,' the earth is essential, they know it as the Mother Goddess. She has her own personality. She is sacred. She is the subject with whom we speak and whom we venerate. The earth is divine fertility. Plants, especially corn, are the flesh of the gods given to man for sustenance.”

Syncretism and religious indifferentism

The revival of Mayan practices and symbols is seen as a return to “pre-Columbian” traditions, in other words, paganism. But for Indian theology, there is no contradiction with Catholicism. One author writes that: “Msgr. Ruiz pointed out that the god venerated in Indian theology was no different from the Jesus venerated in Catholicism.”

The same author describes the incorporation of ancient religious rituals into Catholic rites: “Some have incorporated elements such as water, fire, ancestral colors, which have nothing to do with the prayers of the Catholic Church : we evoke not only a Christian God, but also the earth, the mountains, the water, the moon, the sun, among others…”

The liturgical role of women

It manifests itself in the inclusion of wives in the ordination of permanent deacons. The wife, writes Msgr. Arizmendi, “remains at the side of the deacon throughout the ceremony, and joins her hand to that of her husband at the moment of the promise of obedience.” In addition “she receives, with her husband, the book of the Gospels. She assists as an extraordinary minister of communion. And in ordinary celebrations, she incenses the altar, the Gospels, the images, the ministers and the faithful.”

In addition, “we have authorized two women to administer baptism and to preside over the celebration of marriage when there are no other ministers”: one of the demands of the Synodal Path...

The Mayan altar

It is an altar dedicated to the gods and beliefs of the Mayan religion. These altars are already found in churches in the region and during many religious ceremonies. Msgr. Arizmendi writes: “In some places it is customary to make, in front of the altar, the ‘Mayan altar,’ with flowers and colored candles, according to the four directions of the universe, with fruits of the earth.”

Each color has a specific meaning, four of them representing the cardinal points. At one point, the congregation bows towards the center of the altar which features two candles believed to represent Christ, although these candles also have other meanings.

Msgr. Arizmendi explains: “We have encouraged the inculturation of the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at the ‘Mayan altar.’” There are the "symbols at this 'altar' of the Eucharistic presence of Jesus.” In the Mayan culture, “God is invoked as the Heart of Heaven and the Heart of Earth”; however, explains the cardinal: “Jesus unites heaven and earth, for He is God and man”.

Lighting candles

“The priest who presides over the celebration announces to the community that the universal prayer will be made according to the method of lighting the candles according to the tradition of the ancestors,” writes Msgr. Arizmendi. According to the Mayan tradition, it is possible to communicate in this way with one's ancestors. Before the start of the Mass, a place is prepared in front of the altar where the candles will be lit.

The number of candles varies depending on the purpose of the prayer. The director – always a layman – invites people to pray, while traditional music is played on harp, violin, and guitar. All participants kneel. A woman incenses the candles, then the officiant lights them. The priest stands in front of the place where the candles are, kneels down and prays with the chief.

Ritual dance

“At the end of the homily,” writes the cardinal, “a ritual dance can be performed. It is a slight movement of the body and feet that can be done in one or three dances.”

Some of these elements were present in the papal Mass on February 15, 2016, celebrated by Francis during his visit to the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas. Pope Francis incensed the altar with two deacon wives, both of whom had Mayan censers in hand, under the gaze of their husbands, two permanent native deacons. There was also a ritual dance.

The reader will perhaps be flabbergasted by this disheveled inculturation which introduces the elements of a deeply pagan culture, and which can only – at the very least – maintain a deleterious confusion, but rather tends, whatever the intention of the authors, to a rite which no longer has anything Catholic about it and which is only pure syncretism.