Latin America - a litany of challenges for Pope Francis

Thu Mar 14, 2013 1:53pm EDT
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By Hilary Burke and Paulo Prada

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.   Continued...