Pope faces tough challenges in Brazil
May 5, 2007 - 7:48:19 AM

Vatican City, May 5 - If the Catholic Church is the world's biggest organised religion, it is largely thanks to Latin America, where nearly half of its 1.1 billion followers live. But in recent decades, Latin America has also become a source of constant trouble for Rome.

A growing number of Latin Americans are either abandoning the Church in favour of other religions, particularly evangelical Protestantism, or are simply ignoring its teachings under the influence of Western-style 'hedonist secularism.'

In 1980, when the late Pope John Paul first visited Brazil, virtually all of its people professed to be Catholic. Today, the country's followers total 60 to 70 percent.

As Brazilian cardinal Claudio Hummes warned in a 2005 synod of bishops in Rome: 'We have to wonder - how long will Brazil remain a Catholic country?'

Across the continent, priest shortages have become frequent and the number of regular churchgoers has fallen to all-time lows.

Many Latin American governments are no longer rightwing dictatorships but Left leaning democracies, with little sympathy for staunch defendants of traditional family values.

It is not difficult to understand why Pope Benedict XVI's May 9-14 pilgrimage to Brazil - his first trip outside of Europe since his April 2005 election - comes at a crucial time for the Roman Catholic Church.

Some experts, like Sandro Magister of Italy's L'Espresso magazine, complain that the 80-year-old pontiff has shown too little concern for the Church's woes in Latin America.

'On Jan 20 and then on Feb 17, Benedict XVI gave the only two speeches that he has dedicated to the topic so far. Both were routine speeches,' Magister wrote in a recent article for his website.

In fact, one of Benedict's most notable acts so far has been to publicly scold an influential theologian based in El Salvador.

Father Jon Sobrino, a Jesuit, is one of the main contributors to Liberation Theology, a theological school particularly popular on the continent and among those who believe the Church should promote a more 'real' Jesus, precisely what Brazil's Pentecostal leaders are professing.

Regarded as one of the finest living theologians, the German-born former bishop Joseph Ratzinger is also accused by some of being far too concerned with the 'evils of relativism' and the Church's dwindling support in Europe to take note of what is happening in the rest of the world.

'It is not true, as some argue, that - is euro-centric,' the Vatican's spokesman Federico Lombardi responded in a recent interview with Vatican Radio.

During his stay in Brazil, local Church leaders hope the Pope will help them find ways of winning back adherents.

This is unlikely to come through the kinds of spectacular gestures that had made his predecessor so popular - like walking through a slum in Rio and chatting with residents the way John Paul did during his first visit to Brazil.

Nor is it likely to come through firebrand speeches that hot-blooded Brazilians love so much.

Benedict is a quiet, almost shy academic, and his two-year-old papacy has shown that he remains a traditionalist who is not scared of uttering unpopular truths, whether on the subject of sex or on how to celebrate Mass the proper way.

He is nevertheless capable of pulling surprises.

During his last trip abroad, a late November visit to Turkey that came at the height of a global controversy sparked by his allegedly anti-Islamic remarks, Benedict won over many Muslims with a highly spectacular impromptu visit to Istanbul's Blue Mosque.

Will he also be capable of winning the hearts of Brazilians?

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