Can Francis Bring the Church Back From the Dead?

The pope's foot baths were not just a masterstroke of public relations -- they were the opening salvo of a serious campaign to revive the Catholic Church.

Servizio Fotografico L'Osservatore Romano via Getty Images
Servizio Fotografico L'Osservatore Romano via Getty Images

On March 28, Pope Francis visited the Casal Del Marmo Youth Detention Center in Rome. As part of a Holy Thursday Mass, ahead of Easter, he washed and kissed the feet of 12 young men and women. It was the first time a pope had included women in the ritual. The gesture was in line with the new pope’s renewal of the church’s focus on the poor — and for those of us who study Catholicism in Latin America, it seems like "déjà vu all over again."

The first Latin American pope is continuing the church’s established tradition of focusing on the poor in that region. At the landmark meeting of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference in Medellin in 1968, the church reversed its four century-long focus on privileged parishioners, and called for emphasizing the needs of the poor, who constituted the great majority of the flock. Inspired by liberation theology, which was developed by Latin American theologians during the same period, a significant number of dioceses and parishes from Brazil to Mexico implemented radical new plans that focused on the welfare of their humble flock. Is Francis now in the process of revitalizing this focus on the poor — and if so, why?

One answer may be that Francis sees it as a powerful way to attract believers back to the Catholic Church. Despite the great hopes for constructing a Latin American "church of the poor," the poor themselves largely opted for Pentecostalism over the past half century. Tens of millions of predominantly poor Latin Americans have left Catholicism for such Pentecostal denominations as the Brazil-based Universal Church of the Kingdom of God and the gargantuan Assemblies of God. In fact, Pentecostalism has proved so attractive that a decade ago in my book, Competitive Spirits: Latin America’s New Religious Economy, I described the Christian landscape in Latin America as "Pentecostalized." Since the 1980s, the Catholic hierarchy from Argentina to Mexico has been in a state of panic over this fierce competition from Pentecostalism.

Between these losses and a growing number of the religiously unaffiliated citizens — especially among the region’s impoverished youth — Catholicism in Latin America finds itself at a critical juncture. As recently as 1950, 99 percent of Brazilians were Catholic. Today, only 63 percent are. And while the percentage of Catholics has plummeted, the Protestant population has mushroomed from 1 percent to 22 percent during the same period.

Pentecostalism dominates the Protestant landscape, comprising approximately 70 percent of all Protestants in Latin America. It also exerts great influence in Catholicism through the Charismatic Renewal movement, which was born in the United States at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University in 1967, and exported to Latin America a few years later. For example, more than 60 percent of Guatemalan and Brazilian Catholics claim to be "charismatic." Those groups that don’t offer Pentecostal-style worship largely find themselves on the periphery of Latin America’s Christian landscape.

Thus, the Catholic Church’s innovative missionary plan, known as "New Evangelization," is crucial to its intense competition with Pentecostalism in both Latin America and Africa and with Islam in the latter and parts of Asia — and will most likely become the centerpiece of Pope Francis’s papacy. This strategy, which prioritizes the needs of the poor of the global south — especially young women and girls — holds the key to stanching the bleeding and even winning new converts. No movement has been more successful in resurrecting and revitalizing dioceses and parishes than the Catholic Charismatic Renewal: Masses and weekend prayer vigils, featuring enthusiastic priests who sing and dance to spirited rhythms, pack soccer stadiums in Latin America and the Philippines.

"Charismatic" Brazilian priest Marcelo Rossi, a telegenic former aerobics instructor, is the movement’s superstar in Latin America. His latest book is the number three bestseller in non-fiction — losing out to Pentecostal rival Bishop Edir Macedo, whose autobiography, Nothing to Lose, claims the top spot. Rossi is a regular on Brazil’s secular talks shows and in the mass media, and his CDs of spirited sacred music sell millions of copies.

In Brazil and throughout the Southern Hemisphere, home to some two-thirds of all Catholics, it is this spirit-centered brand of Catholicism that is energizing the faithful. Francis, while not a charismatic himself, looks poised to become the leading proponent of New Evangelization and redirect the church’s efforts away from the anemic European faith and toward the most vulnerable and strategic population sectors of the Global South.

This time around, however, the Catholic Church’s campaign will be centered on the missionary roles of the Holy Spirit and Virgin Mary, which place the church’s focus on the poor in Latin America and the rest of the global south. Francis’s historic washing and kissing of the feet of two young women at a juvenile detention center as part of yesterday’s Holy Thursday ritual could not be a more appropriate symbol of the direction of his papacy.

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