Vatican reaches out in Latin America
By John Paul Rathbone in London, Financial Times, February 20, 2013
After his doctor advised him against making gruelling transatlantic trips, Pope Benedict XVI faced a dilemma. If the ailing 85-year-old obeyed the advice, he would have to do the almost unthinkable: avoid World Youth Day, a huge jamboree of the young faithful set to take place this July in the most Catholic country in the world, Brazil.
Latin America accounts for 40 per cent of the world’s 1.2bn Catholics, and if temporal concerns such as majority-voting have any sway over the cardinals’ conclave, the next pope would certainly come from the region. Brazil and Mexico together account for more than 220m Catholics; Colombia meanwhile has about 40m faithful.
“I know a lot of bishops and cardinals from Latin America who could take responsibility for the universal Church,” Archbishop Gerhard Mueller, who holds Benedict’s old post as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said last year.
Kurt Koch, head of the Vatican department for Christian unity, has suggested the same. “It would be good if there were candidates from Africa or South America at the next conclave,” he said, also last year. When asked if that meant a vote for a non-European over a European, the Swiss cardinal replied at the time: “Yes.”
Certainly, there would be a historical symmetry if Latin America provided the next pope. What began at a small mass on the Island of Hispaniola in 1494, went on to become the Church’s greatest evangelising project. Yet more than 500 years on, Latin America accounts for just 19 of the 118 members of the College of Cardinals who will choose the next pope.
In many ways Latin America represents a crucible of the challenges that the Church faces worldwide, even if it is often imagined from afar as a Catholic “growth market”.
“The Church has the same problems here as elsewhere, except with more Catholics and fewer priests,” says James Alison, a noted theologian and author based in Brazil. “The central challenge is how to deal with modern questions in a way that is honest and transparent.”
As elsewhere, secularism is slimming down the ranks. On a recent Sunday at the Our Lady of Mercy Parish in southern Mexico City, Celia Castro Velázquez, a 76-year-old worshipper, lamented both the diminished size of the congregation during mass that day, and what she called declining moral standards. “Today’s generation goes to football or to wrestling,” she said.
But Mrs Castro Velázquez, a life-long Catholic, also said the institution had not done enough to appeal to younger Mexicans. “The Church has got a big problem—it doesn’t know how to promote itself.”
Plunging fertility rates, for one, suggest that strictures on contraception are rarely observed. In 1960, women in Latin America had almost six children on average, now they have about two.
Catholicism’s spiritual “market share” has always been less strong than it appeared as it is often admixed with effervescent popular beliefs.
In Mexico, for instance, a cult has grown up around Santa Muerte, or Saint Death. Daniel, who is homeless, visits a Santa Muerte shrine in central Mexico City regularly. Peering through the glass panes that protect a black-robed, life-sized skeleton complete with scythe, the 20-year-old says that Santa Muerte has looked over him more than any saint from mainstream Catholicism. “She’s always been there for me,” he says. “She protected me when I was in prison and she protects me now that I’m walking the streets.”
And it is not only in Mexico where this syncretism has taken place: last year, Pope Benedict timed his trip to Cuba to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the Virgin of Charity, a figure strongly associated in the Afro-Caribbean religion Santería with Ochún, the goddess of love.
More recently, Catholicism has been eroded by Evangelists who, in the 1980s moved into new slum areas created by rapid urbanisation that lay outside traditional Catholic parishes.
Although Pentecostalists do not rival the Vatican’s social work, their charismatic approach remains popular among believers who seek the fruits of salvation while still alive. Thus in Brazil, where Evangelicals make up almost a quarter of believers, one Pentecostal group is spending $200m to build a replica of Solomon’s Temple in São Paulo that will seat 10,000 people and stand 18-storeys high.
Faced by such challenges, the Church has recently begun to go on the offensive, via a new Vatican-sanctioned movement. There are now some 73m “Charismatic Catholics” throughout Latin America, and their services draw on many of the same methods that have made Evangelicals so popular.
One such priest is Father Gleuson Gomes, a soft-spoken 36-year old priest in Rio de Janeiro, who sings at services, speaks in tongues and whose ministry has revitalised a fading parish.
“It was undergoing a difficult time, it had an older priest and needed revitalisation,” he says. “That’s why I was sent here by my bishop, because of my charismatic form of ministry.”