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.”

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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.

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