Pope of the Americas

Francis, the first Pontiff from the New World, has a lot of old problems to deal with

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Luca Bruno / AP

Pope Francis bows to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on March 13, 2013.

He will deliver much-needed oxygen to parts of the Catholic empire. Just before the conclave convened, he celebrated his 55th year as a member of the Society of Jesus—popularly called the Jesuits. That itself is a matter of rejoicing for the order—even though Bergoglio is on the conservative end of the often liberal Jesuit scale. The order has seen its once formidable influence wane as the star of Opus Dei rose during the reign of John Paul II. Bergoglio’s choice of name is also telling. Many people immediately saw the reference to the great saint of the church, Francis of Assisi. But anyone raised by the Jesuits would have heard the resonance of another great saint and member of the Society of Jesus: the evangelist to Asia, Francis Xavier. In Mexico City, stunned Jesuits simply murmured “the Argentine” at the news, with one older priest saying, “Our first Pope—let us pray for him and for our church.”

More important is the great burst of energy that may sweep into Latin America. Mexico and Brazil have the largest Catholic populations in the world. Colombia is not far behind. The church has grown vastly more Latino over the past 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. Now that is changing, and Roman Catholicism is losing ground to the combined forces of secularism and Pentecostal Protestantism. From Tierra del Fuego to the U.S. border with Mexico, the Catholic Church has been hemorrhaging worshippers to evangelical congregations. According to Latinobarómetro, in 1996, Latin American countries were 81% Catholic and only 4% evangelical. By 2010, Catholics had dropped to 70%, and evangelicals had risen to 13%. Brazil could once boast of 99% adherence to Rome. Today, Catholics number 65% to an evangelical surge of 22%.

(VIDEO: How Pope Francis Was Elected)

The Pentecostals clearly have fervor. Their evangelical, charismatic spirit is dynamic, loud and vibrant. In São Paulo, a Pentecostal church is building a $200 million, 10,000-seat megachurch that replicates Solomon’s temple, with rocks imported from Israel so locals will feel closer to the Holy Land. 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.

For a church that has had few defenses against this uprising, it is impossible to understate Bergoglio’s 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 that the Latino faithful viewed John Paul II 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.”

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In the end, the question of fealty remains key to the church. As enormous as the Catholic world is, the Vatican knows it deals with a fractious faithful—many of whom find Rome and the Holy See more and more distant from their everyday lives. The long-simmering priestly sex-abuse scandal and the unplumbed depths of the Vatican’s finances seem only to turn off more Catholics by the day. To many of them, the opulent wonder of St. Peter’s and the mysteries of the conclave may be fascinating, but in the end, all of it may be filigree, a hierarchy with gorgeous clothes but no spirit.

On the Sunday before the conclave began, the Gospel reading in Catholic churches around the world happened to be the parable of the prodigal son, the tale of a spoiled heir who takes his inheritance and wastes it—only to be forgiven by his father and taken back in. In Rome, Cardinals used it to talk about bringing back Catholics who had left the church. Perhaps Francis, through his experience of living on the streets, may read that lesson differently. For the church itself has been prodigal, and now may be the time for it to find its way back to its people.

reported by Stephan Faris and Alessandro Speciale / Rome, Elizabeth Dias / Washington, Uki Goñi/Buenos Aires, Dolly Mascareñas / Mexico City and Sorcha Pollak / London
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