Pope Benedict on Wednesday starts his first trip to Latin America, where a Church that is home to nearly half of the world's Catholics faces an uncertain future and falling numbers.
The May 9-14 trip to Brazil, the most populous Catholic country, will also be a personal challenge to the Pope, who is still associated with crackdowns on Liberation Theology in the 1980s when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
The trip's main purpose is to make a keynote address in the city of Aparecida to open a major conference of Latin American bishops, who will discuss strategy for the Church.
As the Latin American Church looks at its future, one main question will be why it is losing tens of millions of members to protestant sects such as Evangelicals and Pentecostalists.
"The sects continue to spread in Latin America," said Professor Guzman Carriquiry, undersecretary at the Pontifical Council for Lay People and one of the few non-clerics in the Vatican to hold a senior position.
"We have already lost 30-40 million members to them. We have to ask ourselves questions about how we are announcing the gospel, how we are teaching, why are people looking for something different?" he told Reuters in an interview.
A study in the 1990s showed that as many as 8,000 Roman Catholics were leaving the Church in Latin America every day to join sects they see as more charismatic and which give them more personal attention than the highly structured Catholic Church.
"This erosion calls for a radical re-thinking of how the faith is being transmitted and received today in Latin America," said Carriquiry, who is Uruguayan.
"If we lose the Catholic tradition in Latin America, our people will lose, and all of Catholicism will lose out. The very future is at stake," he said.
~from AP via Guardian: Pope Visits Brazil, Church Loses Ground
Pope Benedict XVI is heading to the world's most populous Roman Catholic country at time when evangelical Christians are packing converted storefronts and cavernous churches every Sunday, thrusting their Bibles in the air.
Benedict will try to halt that wave of Protestant fervor during his first trip to Brazil. Aiming to energize its more than 120 million Catholics, Benedict will canonize the country's first native saint, hold Masses that could attract millions and open a conference of Latin American bishops in the holy shrine of Aparecida.
Few believe the five-day papal visit, which begins Wednesday, will reverse the flight of Catholics who have abandoned the church to become Protestants - or who simply stopped attending Mass amid profound societal change.
Nearly half the world's 1 billion Catholics live in Latin America, but Pentecostal churches are enjoying explosive growth, promising divine intervention to lift parishioners from lives of misery in a region where the divide between rich and poor is among the worst on the planet.
Brazil's census shows the percentage of citizens characterizing themselves as Catholics plunged from 89 percent in 1980 to 74 percent in 2000, while those calling themselves evangelical Protestants rose from 7 percent to 15 percent.
A study released last week by Brazil's respected Getulio Vargas Foundation indicated the Catholic decline stabilized from 2000 to 2003, but also showed the percentage of Protestants continued to rise.
Sao Paulo's former Catholic 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 Hummes, now prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy.
...Some also see the German-born Benedict as out of touch with the developing world, an image Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi has tried to counter by emphasizing the pope's concern for problems ranging from poverty and debt to the fight against arms trafficking. ``It's not true that he's 'Eurocentric' as some claim,'' Lombardi said.
But many Brazilians still follow the liberation theology movement Benedict moved to crush when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and they remember well that he labeled their work a Marxist heresy.