Latin America evangelism is 'stealing' Catholic flock
The Arizona Republic
Apr. 16, 2005 12:00 AM

 Michael Clancy and Yvonne Wingett

ROME - The Catholic Church has a big problem in Latin America.

Home to 500 million Catholics, the numbers are diminishing because of the rise of evangelical Christianity.

The statistics are varied, but one account in the magazine Christianity Today said evangelical Christianity has grown in Latin America from 50,000 adherents in 1900 to 64 million in 1997, with 75 percent of them Pentecostal

Another account credits evangelical Christianity with 8,000 converts a day, many of them Catholics.

"They are stealing our sheep," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Vatican expert and editor of the Jesuit weekly magazine America, reflecting his sense of what the Roman Curia, the bureaucracy that serves the pope, is thinking.

The rise of evangelicals in Latin America is one reason that the College of Cardinals, which begins its meetings to elect a new pope on Monday, may give serious consideration to a Latin American candidate.

Several individuals, including Claudio Hummes of Brazil and Oscar Rodriguez Maradaiga of Honduras, are thought to be leading candidates.

If such a pope could do for Latin America what Pope John Paul II did for Poland and Eastern Europe, it would help turn back evangelicals and Pentecostals, church leaders believe.

The shift is playing out in Arizona, too, with mainline Protestant churches, the Presbyterians, Lutherans and Methodists, and with Southern Baptists.

They have boosted efforts to reach Latinos by adding Spanish-language services, hiring Latino clergy or offering assistance, such as English classes or food assistance.

Former Latino Catholics are boosting membership at North Phoenix Baptist Church at Central Avenue and Bethany Home Road. The church has hired full-time Hispanic pastors, full-time Hispanic ministry and Spanish-language services, partly to help reach Latino residents living in and around the northern Central Corridor.

Many of those residents are drawn by a gut-level religious message that relates to their everyday lives, Associate Pastor Dick Stafford said.

"The Catholic Church talks loud and long about a personal relationship with Christ," Stafford said.

"But sometimes that happens at an institutional level rather than a personal level. We're really focused on where people are in their daily lives."

Latinos account for about half of the 500,000 who are registered with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, officials estimate.

The Catholic Diocese also has a Hispanic ministry and many Spanish-language Masses.

The church is aware that many Protestant churches and other religious groups are recruiting Latino Catholics but do not track those numbers, said Jose Robles, director of the diocese's Hispanic Ministries.

Robles said groups are making inroads in heavily immigrant neighborhoods and in areas that don't have the regular presence of Catholic priests.

"We take it very seriously," Robles said.

"We haven't designed any methodology to retain those people. The diocese has to have a structured plan to provide the religious care and service that these people need."

The official term the Catholic Church uses for evangelicals is "sects," according to Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

"Some of them will not engage in dialogue with the Catholic Church," he said. "Those who have done so have run into suspicion. We see it as a challenge rather than a conflict."

The church, he said, needs to understand the appeal of such movements and incorporate those things into Catholic life.

"Why the interest? What should we be doing?" he asked.

The Rev. Bob Rossi, a member of the Crozier religious order, moved to Brazil six months ago to begin seeking answers to those questions.

"We need to rethink our inspiration and our mission," he said.

In Brazil, he casts the issue in stark terms: rich vs. poor, powerful vs. powerless.

"On whose side does the church stand?" he asked.

Some of the reasons given for the increasing appeal of evangelicalism and Pentecostalism are that they are more participatory than the Catholic Church typically has been.

Economic incentives, face-to-face evangelization and the church's failure to address social inequities are other reasons. So is a shortage of priests.

In addition, Pentecostalism appeals on a basic level to Latin American culture.

With its concepts of baptism in the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues, as Christ's apostles are said to have done after the first Pentecost, Pentecostalism has represented a reaction against rigid theology and formal worship of traditional churches.