Pope Visits Waning Latin American Flock

Article excerpt

Outside the Sao Bento monastery in Sao Paulo, where Pope Benedict XVI is expected to give a public blessing Wednesday night after arriving in Brazil, florists bustled about creating their arrangements, sparks flew as welders finished a new archway to cover the church entrance, and residents spoke excitedly about the pope's first visit to Latin America.

But his mission is nothing if not formidable - even in the so- called "continent of hope," where nearly half the world's Roman Catholics live. The Catholic Church seeks to regain influence in a region where the people, while still electrified by the visit of a pope, are no longer necessarily Catholic nor adherents of the moral code of Rome.

Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world. Still, the influence of the church has been waning as Catholics here have left the fold for Protestant, predominantly Pentecostal, churches. At the same time the number of those considering themselves to be secular has grown - driving a wedge between the strictures of the church and mainstream mores.

Already, Brazil's politicians and Catholic leaders have butted heads over condom distribution. That dispute comes as the "culture wars" have found their way to Latin America - with nations moving to relax rules on abortion and strengthen legal rights for same-sex couples. For a pope seen as a methodical academic - lacking the charisma of his predecessor, John Paul II, but sharing his conservative vision - the trip could be a preview of how wide the gulf has become.

"It's a different Latin America," says Hannah Stewart-Gambino, an expert on religion in Latin America at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. And while it is far more conservative than the US or Europe, its recent moves have put the church on notice. "The view of the Catholic Church, and particularly of this pope, is that the slippery slope of secularism is a rapid downhill slide into godlessness. ... In Latin America, [Catholic leaders] feel they have to be very vigilant to end the downhill slide so that it doesn't end up like Europe."

On his first visit outside Europe, Pope Benedict XVI will open a conference of Latin American bishops from May 13 through May 31 in Aparecida, near Sao Paulo. He will hold an open-air mass for more than a million in Sao Paulo Friday and canonize the country's first saint, Antonio de Sant'Anna Galvao, an 18th-century Franciscan monk.

Many people hope his trip energizes the Catholic community of Brazil. "We Brazilians are ecstatic about this visit," said Eduardo Santos, as he left the church at Sao Bento, which he visits two or three times a week. "He is giving us the drive to overcome our problems, and give new hope to life and Catholicism."

But the hurdles are high. When the late John Paul II made his first trip to Brazil in 1980, 89 percent of Brazilians considered themselves Catholic, according to a national census. By 2000, that number had fallen to 74 percent. At that time, Rome had begun to worry about the number of Latin Americans converting to Protestantism: their numbers soared from just 6.6 percent of the population in 1980 to 15.4 percent 20 years later. The majority have joined Pentecostal churches such as Assemblies of God or the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.

Today, an equally large concern for the Catholic Church is the number of those unaffiliated with any religion: that number jumped from 1.6 percent in 1980 to 7.4 percent in 2000, according to the census.

Sao Paulo's former archbishop, Claudio Hummes, told reporters the losses are "a hemorrhage, and it's not over."

"It is due to the expansionism of Protestant sects that attract an ever-larger number of baptized Catholics, but also to moral relativism, imported from Europe and introduced on the continent above all by the local ruling classes, the mass media and the intellectuals," said Mr. Hummes, now prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy. …