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BUENOS AIRES/RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio reached deep into communities to put his Church on the front lines of their social, economic and spiritual struggles.
In the vast slums that circle the Argentine capital, part of a massive urban sprawl of 13 million people, the man who this week became the first Latin American pope would occasionally celebrate Mass. More importantly, though, he deployed priests, nuns and others to minister to the poor, the sick and the uneducated.
It was a drive that aimed to bring the Catholic Church closer to its followers, and also protect its influence by slowing the advance of evangelical churches and other Protestant denominations that have spread rapidly across Latin America.
The efforts, subordinates say, reflect Bergoglio's belief that charity and compassion are at the core of the teachings of a church that more recently has spent as much time stemming scandal and losing parishioners as it has evangelizing and focusing on faith.
"He wants us out of the convents and churches and on the street," says Rosita Blanco, a 90-year-old nun at the convent where Bergoglio himself took first communion and went to kindergarten. "He wants us to listen to people."
It is there, though, on the street, where Pope Francis, as he is now called, saw firsthand the growing challenges undermining Catholicism's once firm grip on spiritual life in Latin America - from the growing secularism of an increasingly urban population, to inroads by rival faiths among worshippers who now feel out of step with the Church's ancient rituals and doctrine.
"This is a leader, like many from the Church in Latin America, who himself has witnessed poverty, rapid urbanization, and traumatic shifts in political and economic fortunes," said Kenneth Serbin, a historian who specializes in Latin American religion at the University of San Diego. "He knows that an appeal to the basics may be the best way to help the Church in the region and also around the world."
The challenges in Latin America are both immense and consequential for a church that hopes to renew its vitality through growth in Africa, Asia, and other parts of the developing world.
Though Latin America is still home to more Catholics than any other region worldwide, the percentage of people in the region who call themselves Catholic fell from about 90 percent in 1910 to 72 percent in 2010, according to The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
And the trend appears to be accelerating.
In Brazil, the world's biggest Catholic country, the number of people who called themselves Catholic tumbled from 74 percent in 2000 to 65 percent in 2010, according to government data. In Mexico, the world's second-biggest concentration of faithful, census figures show the number there fell from 88 percent to below 83 percent during the same decade.
Pope Benedict himself recognized the size of the problem.
"We must be better believers, more pious, affable and welcoming in our parishes and communities, so that no one feels distant or excluded," he said in remarks to Colombian bishops last June.
A growing dissatisfaction with Catholicism in Latin America in part is a result of some of the same problems that have plagued the Church elsewhere - sex abuse scandals, accusations of corruption and unbending Catholic teaching on birth control, sexuality and abortion.
But much of it has to do with the changing demographics of a region undergoing a fast and profound transformation.
While still trailing developed nations in most economic indicators, countries such as Brazil, Peru and Colombia over the past decade boasted some of the world's fastest-growing economies.
As Latin America grows more prosperous and more urban, many worshippers feel out of touch with a faith whose roots lay in a poor and rural past, when the Church was one of the few functioning institutions.
Indeed, much as the Church spread in Europe through the fiefdoms of the Middle Ages, Catholicism grew in Latin America because of its close ties to wealthy landowners and its support of an entrenched power structure.
"There's been a break from a not-so-distant past when the Church had spread because of its links to the rural elite," says Fernando Altemeyer, a theology professor at the Catholic University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. "As societies here move away from that structure, the Church hasn't known how to reorganize itself in response."
Even the Church admits that priests have been slow to follow as millions of rural faithful in recent decades migrated to cities such as Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City and Bogota in search of better lives.
"The Catholic Church simply didn't follow these migrations or keep up with the changes they led to," says Thierry Lienard de Guertechin, a Catholic priest and demographer in Brasilia, Brazil's capital.
Consider Claudia Valenzuela, a 26-year-old Argentine who calls herself Catholic, but who three months ago began attending a Bible study group at the Iglesia del Centro, an evangelical church in Buenos Aires. She grew up in Tucuman, a poor province in northern Argentina and moved to the capital after an economic crisis a decade ago.
Now pregnant with her first child, she turned to religion after losing her job at a housekeeping agency. Seeking solace at local Catholic parishes, she found the churches dark and empty.
"At this church," by contrast, "any time of day you find the pastors there and you can approach them," she said. "At the exact moment that you need it, the support is there."
Part of the lure of some evangelical churches is that many of them preach the powers of an active and interventionist God, able not only to provide salvation in the hereafter, but to improve the lot of believers in this life. The so-called "prosperity theology" has proven attractive for many on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.
Even those who are better off, though, are finding reasons to leave Catholicism.
Because of urbanization, Latin American culture has become more like those of advanced Western economies - more diverse, more educated, more consumer-oriented and more willing to break with tradition. As a result, the number of rival denominations is multiplying, drawing worshippers of all ages and from across the socioeconomic spectrum.
Sociologists say that has to do with a general trend, especially among young people, toward fragmentation in everything from politics, to social structures, to religious beliefs.
Latin Americans, like people elsewhere, are now tuned into a rapidly evolving global culture that is as shaped by technology and the Internet as it is by geography.
"It's much harder to pass along a set of beliefs now than it was a generation ago," says Silvia Fernandes, a sociologist who has studied the growth of evangelical churches at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro. "It's true for politics and social groupings, and it's increasingly true for religion."
Some churches are actively taking advantage of the fragmentation.
Fabrini Viguier, a 40-year-old pastor of a Protestant church near Rio, said his parish follows the Calvinist teachings of several U.S-based churches that target young and urban professionals because of their influence in shaping society.
In addition to its current parish in Niteroi, across the bay from Rio's dramatic seaside, the church is planning to open a new site in the fast-growing suburb of Campo Grande, where a boom in the offshore oil industry is rapidly luring investments and well-educated, high-earning professionals.
"We speak to those who are already on a path to financial and social success, but who long for more in terms of their spiritual lives," says Viguier. "The Catholic Church hasn't been able to keep up with their changing tastes, attitudes, or outlook."
Economics aside, many Latin Americans are attracted to what they consider the more upbeat, engaging liturgy and even the spectacle of some evangelical churches, be they ramshackle rooms in the bare-brick slums that speckle the region or a growing number of glitzy megachurches resembling those of American-style televangelism.
Compared with the doctrine, hierarchies and formal ceremony they associate with Catholicism, many converts say they feel an immediacy and fervor in their new congregations that they had not experienced before.
"There's a passion, there's a true love that moves you," says Pastor Mario Daza, a 48-year-old Bolivian who now runs the social programs at the Iglesia del Centro in Buenos Aires.
Additional reporting by Guido Nejamkis; Editing by Todd Benson, Kieran Murray and Claudia Parsons