Pope Francis may be revealing a new side of the Roman Catholic Church by his bold ventures into politics – whether climate change, income inequality or shining light on the battle between the US and Cuba.“Before Pope Francis, the Catholic Church was out of reach,” said Rosario Zuñiga, a volunteer at a church here who credited Francis with “a new, more human” approach. “He has touched on very sensitive subjects about the attitude of the church regarding its own mistakes, like sex abuse.”
March 2013 marks the day Francis made Pope – he became the first pontiff from Latin America – and was hailed by many as the kind of figure long needed by the Catholic Church to gain back the
trust and appeal lost in poor countries.
Paraguay registered the highest percentage of adults who identified as Catholics, at 89 percent. And both Paraguay and Ecuador have a relatively high percentage of Catholics who say that they practice a “charismatic” form of Catholicism — which sometimes includes jumping up and raising hands during services, or speaking in tongues — a phenomenon that has developed in recent years in response to the rise of Pentecostalism.
His selection goes to show how crucial it is to include the developing world into the church’s future and offered a way to reverse its erosion in Latin America, a region that holds almost 40 percent of the world’s Catholics but has experienced a steady rise in secularism and competing branches of Christianity.
At the very least, the change of tone — by a pope who champions the poor and avoids luxury, and even poses for selfies with followers — has raised the hopes of many churchgoers.
In Argentina, Francis’ native country, the director of a Catholic association said that while the new pope had sparked excitement and interest, attendance at church services and the number of Catholic marriages had barely increased.
“There is an asymmetry,” said the director, Justo Carbajales, 56, a cardiologist. “Argentines have strengthened ties with the figure of the pope, but still not at all with the church.”
Here in the capital of Ecuador, where the pope will begin his visit to Latin America, Archbishop Fausto Trávez acknowledged concern over what he called the church’s decline in recent decades, including a dwindling number of priests.
But he said he thought that the pope’s influence could be seen through increased attendance at Mass, increased collections and a recent rise in the number of seminary students studying to become priests.
“With everything that he says about the poor and about justice,” Archbishop Trávez said of Francis, “the young people become motivated.” He added that many had entered seminary “because the pope is doing things that they would like to do.”
Latin America and the Caribbean have 425 million Catholics, 39 percent of the world’s total, according to the Pew Research Center. But like a multinational corporation facing slumping sales, falling market share, rising competition and a fatigued brand, the church is vulnerable.
As recently as the early 1970s, at least 90 percent of Latin Americans were Catholic. But that number began to fall as Protestant churches grew. In a survey published in November by the Pew Center, 69 percent of adults in Latin America identified as Catholic.
What was once a gradual shift has become a flood, with Catholics now a minority in Uruguay and Honduras, and at just 50 percent in some other countries, according to the survey, which was based on more than 30,000 face-to-face interviews in 18 countries and Puerto Rico. In Brazil, the country with the world’s largest Catholic population, 61 percent of adults now identify as Catholic, the survey found, but 81 percent said they had been raised Catholic.