Why the Election of Pope Francis Is Important for Latin America

From the moment Spain’s first boat arrived on the shores of the Western Hemisphere, the Catholic Church’s influence permeated the region, and its longstanding influence has yet to cease.

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Victor R. Caivano / AP

Worshipers pack the Metropolitan Cathedral during the evening Mass in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on March 13, 2013.

Latin America is Catholicism’s great bulwark. From the moment Spain’s first boat arrived on the shores of the Western Hemisphere, the Catholic Church’s influence permeated the region, and its longstanding influence has yet to cease. Mexico and Brazil have the largest Catholic populations in the world. Colombia is not far behind. The church itself has grown vastly more and more Latino over the last one hundred years.

But the Catholic Church has also enjoyed a 500-year monopoly on the region. Latin America, unlike Europe, never had a Protestant Reformation. Christianity was almost entirely synonymous with the Holy See. There was no Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, Jean Calvin, or Ulrich Zwingli to revisit Scripture and schism the continent—until now.

In Latin America, Catholics are losing worshipers to evangelical congregations, and the numbers suggest a not-so-slow erosion. Catholics comprised 81% of Latin America’s population in 1996, and Protestants made up only 4%, according to the polling site Latinobarometro. By 2010, Protestants had jumped to 13% of the population while Catholics dropped to 70%. Samuel Rodriguez, head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, says the movement owes much of its strength to the printing presses of the 20th century—evangelistic radio and television programs. It is nothing short of revolutionary. “We are in the first generation of the Hispanic Protestant Reformation,” he explains, “and that reformation has taken place primarily via the conduit of the Pentecostal charismatic movement.”

(PHOTOS: The Road to the Papacy)

The evangelical, charismatic spirit is dynamic, loud, and vibrant. In São Paulo, a Pentecostal church is building a $200-million, 10,000-seat mega-church that replicates Solomon’s temple. They are even importing rocks from Israel so locals feel closer to the Holy Land. In Guatemala, evangelicals are making names as active missionaries. Even self-acclaimed Catholics across the entire region are identifying not just as Catholic but also as born-again. Latino converts overwhelmingly say they want to know God personally, and they want to do so in their own cultural context.

Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis I, took to the balcony above Saint Peter’s as the church’s secret weapon to take back Latin America. He’s the first non-European and the first Latin American to take the Papal seat. He chose to be named after a saint known for his deep spirituality, appreciation for the sacrament, and commitment to the poor. For a church that has had few defenses against this uprising, it is impossible to understate his significance. The only real effort until now has been the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement, an attempt to bring charismatics into the Roman fold, and that tends to be led mostly by laypeople. Now the Vatican is pulling the heartstrings of the Latino church from the top down—the cardinals did not forget the Latino church held John Paul II as close as a member of their own families. “Latin Americans always love the pope,” says Notre Dame theology professor Timothy Matovina. “This is going to add another level of cariño, a deep love, affection, connection, that they have for him.”

One key plan of attack still remains. Pope Francis did not speak to the thousands gathered in Saint Peter’s Square in Spanish—he used Italian. “The first time he speaks to them in Spanish, that is going to mean something to them,” says Matovina. And the moment those first palabras, those first Spanish words, cross Francis’ lips? The battle for Latin America will be fully on.

MOREHabemus Papam: Francis I, the First Pope from the Western Hemisphere

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58 comments
JamesCranston
JamesCranston

Well first of all the article is wrong,he is Italian not latino ,his parents are from Italy get your facts straight before you write an article about latino's.

lachicatica
lachicatica

“%s: Why the election of Pope Francis is important for Latin America | %sTGL (v%srld%sead

edbrownell
edbrownell

@TIME @TIMEWorld the word "Latino" is. dispective . "America" is not the the US it is the hole Continent Better reffer as Latin AMERICANS

gigicd86
gigicd86

@TIME as a Latin person I'm glad we have someone on a big international role but I don't expect a lot from him or the church

fuertecorazon
fuertecorazon

@TIME @TIMEWorld Stop all this ethnic BS Do u think Marco Rubio is really good 2 Latinos in USA? A little deeper analysis in2 Pope wd help

MelActually
MelActually

@TIME @TIMEWorld I've read these types of headlines so many times and only time (no pun intended) can and will tell.

PS_Williams
PS_Williams

@TIME @TIMEWorld With the number of Cardinals he'll be able to appoint, this non European Pope thing may become more mainstream.

mellamonicolas
mellamonicolas

@lisagoldapple Coz it gives us Argies one more reason not to forget how great, awesome, respectable (and humble) we are!

Mattie96
Mattie96

%s %s Fortunately the "unfortunates" in Latin America have advocates from the 1st world like you and %s . %s

aitakatia
aitakatia

@TIME @TIMEWorld The church can make way more money because almost 85% of Latina America is catholic and feel more In Control

ndrer
ndrer

@Bandeenk Christianity is dying everywhere. In any case, it probably won't do much to that guy on the cross. :3

pikemgpp
pikemgpp

@TIME @TIMEWorld be interesting to see what his stance on the Falklands will be...could become thorny for the Brits!

ELMIGUERULEZ
ELMIGUERULEZ

And this type of this why there won't be a North American Pope ever... check it Nortth American becuase we're all americans not just you US citizens...

marialeprato
marialeprato

Worth reading. %s “%s: Why the election of Pope Francis is important for Latin America | %sbLs (v%srld)”

JimLochner
JimLochner

@TIME Happy to have a Pope committed to poor & disadvantaged Hope he repairs Church's image in US and Europe

dvhall8
dvhall8

@JamesCranston Your wrong James Cranston.  If you're American, you're American whether you are of Italian, Irish, Jewish, Swedish, English or Chinese descent. No matter where your predecessors are from you carry the soul, imprint,distinct traits  and thinking of an "American."  Argentina has one of the largest Jewish populations in the western hemisphere outside of NY, likewise a large Italian, French, English, Spanish (Spain, first and second generation and older), Polish, etc., you name it, it exists.  Yet, no matter where they are from by lineage, consider themselves Argentinians, Latinos and part of the heritage of  the rest of Latin America and of the same fabric.  One's last name inevitably becomes less pronounced and less important in the scheme of things.

Bandeenk
Bandeenk

@ndrer sayangnya saat ini aku gak tau mau nanggapi apa statement mu barusan bung :D

TrueBeliever
TrueBeliever

@TeresaFrohock @glindaharrison You should be ashamed of yourself.  This is the second day after the Pope's investment, and you slander his pastoral work.  You have sinned.  May God have Mercy on Your Mortal Soul ... Idiot!

ndrer
ndrer

@Bandeenk gereja Katholik sekarang susah nyari fresh blood buat mau gabung ke monasteries. Viva la modernism! :3

glindaharrison
glindaharrison

@TeresaFrohock I got stories, too.... Maybe we should start a Southern Evangelical Survivors Support Group. We'll serve coffee....