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
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
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. …