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.