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Academics Faith & Spirituality

Short-term study abroad program brings Pax Christi Award home to Chiapas, Mexico

Roy Ketchum has been a faculty member at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University since 2005. Most of his time is spent in Hispanic Studies. He is chair of the department and an associate professor, and also teaches Latino Latin American Studies.

Anecdotally, he can add archaeology to his list of skills. And he’s a bit of a detective – sort of like a Spanish-speaking Indiana Jones for CSB and SJU.

How that came to be is a bit of a story. Long associated with Central America, Ketchum led several semester study abroad programs in Guatemala from 2006 until the COVID-19 pandemic forced a suspension in 2020 and 2021. In 2022 and 2023, he returned to neighboring Chiapas, Mexico, to lead an embedded study abroad program. Students spent eight weeks on campus studying the region under Ketchum before they all traveled to Chiapas for four weeks immediately after school concluded.

Ketchum is familiar with the area, having gone there on weekend excursions when he was in Guatemala and other times in the past decade when he has traveled on his own. With a master’s degree in Hispanic literature and a doctorate in Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian literature and linguistics, Ketchum was familiar with – if not fascinated by – Bishop Samuel Ruiz, who served the Diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, for 40 years beginning in 1959.

Ruiz was a legendary champion of indigenous peoples, perhaps best known for leading peace talks between the Mexican government and Zapatistas who rebelled in 1994 against the yoke of poverty inflicted on them for decades by the long-ruling state. He was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He didn’t receive it, but Ketchum was inspired a few years ago to learn Ruiz – who died in 2011 – had been honored with the Pax Christi Award at Saint John’s commencement in 2000.

The Pax Christi Award is the highest honor the university can bestow and honors people who have “devoted themselves to God through their work, in the tradition of Benedictine monasticism, to serve others and to build a heritage of faith in the world.” The award – represented by a statuette more than a foot high – was established in 1963 and has only been given in two of the past 13 years.

There was just one problem. The statuette, which weighs about 30 pounds, was supposed to be shipped to Ruiz but he never got it. The package was held up in customs, its protective box partially crushed in the process, and it was ultimately returned to Saint John’s. Fr. Timothy Kelly, who was abbot of Saint John’s Abbey at the time, had planned to deliver it to San Cristobal but, before he could do so, he was succeeded by John Klassen. Unwittingly, Ruiz’s Pax Christi Award remained in Klassen’s office for more than 20 years until Ketchum began poking around.

“Samuel Ruiz’s legacy pops up here, there and everywhere in Chiapas,” Ketchum said. “I tried to connect him with pieces in the seminar. The students were well aware of him, and we conducted activities and outings in Chiapas. One of those was to the Bishop Samuel Ruiz Museum. I’d been there and found his remarks from when he was at Saint John’s. But when we looked to see the award, it was nowhere on the shelves or in the archives.”

After returning to Chiapas in 2022, Ketchum shared his conundrum with Br. Dennis Beach, OSB, who mentioned it to Klassen. The award was found, and Ketchum delivered it to its rightful home on his most recent visit with 14 CSB and SJU students in tow. They connected with indigenous peoples in Chiapas, stayed with host families and experienced intensive language learning. And all participated in a June 10 ceremony at the museum that remains available for viewing on Facebook Live.

Coincidentally, Kevin Clancy ’00, the current director of the Center for Global Education at CSB and SJU, was the student commencement speaker preceding Ruiz 23 years ago in the Abbey Church.

“I’m glad I went first because he was a tough act to follow,” Clancy said. “I remember his speech was very moving – not the typical thing you would hear at graduation. It’s amazing that this has come full circle now and the award that he received is now in its rightful place.”

Fittingly, Ketchum engineered interaction between the students and several of Ruiz’s nephews at the ceremony.

“It was just a thrill to help honor his legacy,” Ketchum said. “And I found this paradox between Samuel Ruiz, who said when he was honored at Saint John’s that he only received the award on behalf of the voices of the people in his country that had been silenced, and the fact that the award itself didn’t find its way home until long after he was unable to speak anymore, either. I think in some ways that makes the Pax Christi that much more profound.”

Pax Christi Award given

Bishop Samuel Ruiz holds the Pax Christi Award during a ceremony at Saint John’s University commencement in 2000. Former Abbot Timothy Kelly, OSB, is at left, with former President Br. Dietrich Reinhart looking on. The award was to be sent to Ruiz in Chiapas, Mexico, but never reached him before his death and was only restored to a museum in his name earlier this year by faculty member Roy Ketchum and a group of SJU and College of Saint Benedict students on a short-term study abroad program.

Roy Ketchum and a group of CSB and SJU students

Roy Ketchum (back row, left) and a group of students from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University finally delivered the Pax Christi Award, given in 2000 to Bishop Samuel Ruiz, to its final destination after 23 years. Holding the award is Natalia Bojórquez Vargas, director of the Samuel Ruiz museum.

Pax Christi detail

The Pax Christi Award is the highest honor Saint John’s University can bestow on a recipient.

Samuel Ruiz nephews

Nephews of Bishop Samuel Ruiz take possession of the Pax Christi Award, brought from Saint John’s University to Chiapas, Mexico. They are (from left) David Murphy Ruiz, Roberto Murphy Ruiz and Jose Daniel Murphy Ruiz. (Photos above courtesy of Danielle Taylor)