In Brazil visit, pope will try to halt slide

As Catholics flee the church, evangelical Christians are gaining.

Published May 8, 2007

SAO PAULO, Brazil - Pope Benedict XVI is heading to the world's most populous Roman Catholic country at a time when evangelical Christians are packing converted storefronts and cavernous churches every Sunday, thrusting their Bibles in the air.

Benedict will try to halt that wave of Protestant fervor during his first trip to Brazil. Aiming to energize its more than 120-million Catholics, Benedict will canonize the country's first native saint, hold Masses that could attract millions and open a conference of Latin American bishops in the holy shrine of Aparecida.

Few believe the five-day papal visit, which begins Wednesday, will reverse the flight of Catholics who have abandoned the church to become Protestants - or who simply stopped attending Mass amid profound societal change.

Nearly half the world's 1-billion Catholics live in Latin America, but Pentecostal churches are enjoying explosive growth, promising divine intervention to lift parishioners from lives of misery in a region where the divide between rich and poor is among the worst on the planet.

Brazil's census shows the percentage of citizens characterizing themselves as Catholics plunged from 89 percent in 1980 to 74 percent in 2000, while those calling themselves evangelical Protestants rose from 7 percent to 15 percent.

Sao Paulo's former Catholic archbishop, Claudio Hummes, told reporters the losses are "a hemorrhage, and it's not over."

"It is due to the expansionism of Protestant sects that attract an ever-larger number of baptized Catholics, but also to moral relativism, imported from Europe and introduced on the continent above all by the local ruling classes, the mass media and the intellectuals, " said Hummes, now prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy.

Some wonder whether Benedict will be able to make a difference, since the church's situation worsened in Latin America despite frequent visits by his beloved predecessor, John Paul II.

"He was the pilgrim pope, who went to Latin America as a conquering hero, but for all John Paul's popularity, things grew worse over his tenure, " said former Vatican radio reporter David Gibson.