Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Evangelical Protestants Gaining on Catholics in Latin America Priest Shortage, Requirements Hurt Organization, Editor Says

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Evangelical Protestants Gaining on Catholics in Latin America Priest Shortage, Requirements Hurt Organization, Editor Says

Article excerpt

FOR HOURS on end on a bright, cold day last week, thousands of Roman Catholics filed through the streets of the Guatemalan capital toward the site of the papal Mass.

Dressed in yellow shirts and waving yellow banners, they sang hymns and chanted the name of Pope John Paul II. In those moments it was easy to forget the problems facing the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America.

But the pope left the region Friday, flying to Venezuela for a quick visit before departing Sunday for Rome. Remaining behind are the internal divisions and external pressures that are chipping away at the church's base.

Each day the Catholic Church in Latin America loses more baptized members than it gains. While John Paul's visit to Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador boosted the church's image at a critical time, few believe his week of preaching can turn things around.

The biggest challenge for Catholics now is the competition.

Across Latin America, evangelical Protestants comprise more than 15 percent of all Christians. The amount is 25 percent in places such as Guatemala, where items once used in Catholic observances, such as crucifixes and dance masks, now are sold as curios by evangelicals who no longer need them.

Flocking to cinderblock churches on rural roads or to small homes in the capital, and even in strip malls, Latin Protestants are far more likely to attend services than their Catholic peers.

"Catholics are hobbled by the parish form of organization, because they don't have enough priests to respond to a huge agglomeration of people," said anthropologist David Stoll, who most recently co-edited the book "Rethinking Protestantism in Latin America."

Brazil has one priest for every 9,900 people, for example. In Guatemala it's one for every 14,000 people, and in Honduras, one for every 22,400.

"In evangelicalism, you don't have to be celibate, you don't have to spend years in the seminary" to lead a church, Stoll said. "If you display preaching or pastoral ability on the street, you can rise as far as your charisma can take you.

"And if your church fails to give you enough room, you can start your own. …

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