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Firebrand Padre of the Poor

Father Maximo is a renegade parish priest, rebel sympathizer and champion of peasant rights. His volatile voice helps spark debate over role of Mexico's largely pro-government Catholic Church.


ATOYAC DE ALVAREZ, Mexico — Father Maximo Gomez was just 10, the son of a proud and principled peasant, when his father was murdered by a rich man's son.

His father had built a fence for a wealthy rancher in their rural village in Jalisco state. But when the time came to pay, the rancher sent his son to the peasant with far less than the agreed-upon price. "My father said: 'No. Pay me as we agreed, because we agreed as men. Or just rob me of everything.' "

With that, Father Maximo recalled, his father turned away and the rancher's son shot him in the back.

As the man lay dying, he called in his oldest sons and nephews and made them swear, one by one, that they would not take revenge. Young Maximo and a cousin were the only two who did not take the oath.

A month later, the cousin tracked the rancher's son to Mexico City. "You killed my uncle," the cousin told him, according to Father Maximo. "Now, if you're a man, draw."

"And right there he finished him," the priest said.

That was in 1942. Today Father Maximo, 64, is a firebrand liberation theologist, one of Mexico's most outspoken priests. He is a self-proclaimed enemy of the rich and a renegade from the country's largely pro-government and submissive--albeit changing--Roman Catholic Church, which represents the faith of nearly 90% of Mexico's 90 million people.

And Father Maximo's beliefs are helping to frame a critical debate over the role of priests and their church in a nation where, unlike in much of Latin America, the political elite has barred them from affairs of state for more than 150 years. Although hardly a household name, Father Maximo is becoming a catalyst in that debate at a time when the church is reexamining its role here, some analysts say.

In the aftermath of recent attacks by a new guerrilla force, the priest has emerged as a voice on the radical fringe of the debate over Mexican liberation theology. He is a religious supporter of armed rebellion who, some in the government and church believe, has sought revenge against the rich ever since his father's murder.

Father Maximo, who insists he believes that vengeance is wrong, openly sympathizes with the armed Popular Revolutionary Army. The group, known by its Spanish initials EPR, has killed police officers and soldiers throughout southern Mexico since it first appeared in June at a Mass that Father Maximo attended not far from his parish in Atoyac de Alvarez, in the southern state of Guerrero.

Government investigators suspect that the frail, bespectacled priest is directly linked to the rebel force. Recalling an earlier era when Mexican priests were persecuted for political activism, Father Maximo said prosecutors recently subpoenaed him for questioning about the EPR, which he calls "an army of the people."

Officials say they base their suspicions partly on the role Father Maximo played in a 1995 kidnapping that they believe was staged by the EPR. The kidnappers selected the priest to deliver the $30-million ransom that freed banking magnate Alfredo Harp Helu in Mexico City in June, 1994.

In a recent interview at his sleepy parish about an hour's drive from Acapulco, Father Maximo spoke freely about the kidnapping, his sympathies for the EPR and the ideas that have distanced him from the church hierarchy. But he firmly denied ties to the rebels and insisted that he did not know Harp Helu or his kidnappers. His involvement "was just to save a life," he said.

As for the identity of the EPR guerrillas, Father Maximo said only, "It is a group of peasants who can no longer tolerate the misery and the repression to which the government has subjected them."

In the recently rekindled debate about how far the church can venture into political affairs, many in the Mexican clergy and independent religious analysts said they view Father Maximo as an aberration. He is one of a handful of highly politicized priests who have had little influence on the church's conservative mainstream--although, the analysts added, that conservatism may be on the brink of change.

"The Father Maximos are colorful but not very important," said Jose Alvarez Icaza, a social and religious activist who has served on two papal ecumenical councils. "There are a few priests like him out there. . . . But these are the exceptions."

Victor Ramos Cortes, director of religious and social studies at the University of Guadalajara, agreed: "I don't think this wing of the church is very broad.

"But . . . it is worth discussing. . . . He has a strong presence in the mountains [of southern Mexico], and there are people who believe in him."

Ramos and many other religious analysts say Father Maximo and his ideas represent one possible future for Mexico's Catholic Church. Already, they say, even some in the conservative church hierarchy have been uncommonly outspoken and critical of government policy in recent months as public support and confidence in the nation's political institutions continue to erode.

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