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The extensive media coverage of the new pope has included some discussion, largely perfunctory, of the Catholic Church in Latin America. Mentioned the most are the threat to the church from the growth of Evangelical/Pentecostal churches, and the growing spirit of consumerism and secularism in Latin American society. Most of the remarkable increase in Evangelical/Pentecostals took place in the 1980s and ’90s. During the first decade of the 21st century, it has slowed noticeably; and currently Evangelical/Pentecostal denominations account for roughly 17 percent of the region’s population. These dynamic Protestant churches have filled a deep religious need in the lives of many Latin Americans, and they have caused the Catholic Church to respond with vigor to retain and regain adherents.

Since Vatican Council II, the bishops of Latin America have been actively involved in creating new ways for the church in Central and South America. Every decade or so, they come together as the Latin American Bishops Conference (CELAM); and it has been said that at their first gathering in 1968 at Medellin, Colombia, they were naive enough to actually attempt to make Vatican II teachings a reality in the region. Since then the Latin American Church has evolved into a version of Catholic Christianity very different from that practiced by most Americans – a version that can be characterized by five interwoven and overlapping themes:

Enculturation: There is an appreciation for indigenous peoples and their worldview – religious, social and political. An emphasis on embracing indigenous populations led to recruiting, forming and mobilizing hundreds of thousands of lay catechists.

Solidarity and the preferential option for the poor: Long seen as allied with the highest levels in society, the church in Latin America has radically refocused its concern to highlighting injustices, and identifying with and working to meet the temporal as well as spiritual needs of millions of poor and marginalized people. Liberation theology inspired this orientation, especially from the 1960s to the 1980s. But even the most “conservative” clerics in Latin America have publicly and repeatedly voiced the concern for social justice.

Pope Francis, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, gave voice to this concern of the hierarchy at the 2007 CELAM conference in Aparecida, Brazil: “We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most, yet reduced misery the least. The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.”

Evangelization: In part a response to the growth of Evangelical/Pentecostal churches, the bishops have placed heavy emphasis on “re-evangelizing” Catholics, since it has been shown that those educated in their faith are unlikely to desert it. Evangelization programs aimed at the “integral” formation of lay Catholics can be found throughout Latin America.

Growth of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal: Running parallel to the rapid growth of the enthusiastic, mostly Pentecostal churches in Latin America, the charismatic movement has been attracting practicing as well as inactive Catholics. In Brazil, the country with the largest number of Catholics in the world, more than half of the faithful are identified with the movement. It emphasizes jubilant, ecstatic worship, small evangelizing groups and strong lay leadership. There is some concern about the movement becoming a “parallel church,” but it has been repeatedly endorsed by the CELAM and the Vatican.

Lay involvement and empowerment: This is absolutely the most extensive and significant movement in the Latin American Church. The CELAM bishops endorsed Vatican II’s emphasis on the renewed role of the laity, and created paths to what they called “pastoral conjunto” – shared pastoral responsibilities. As of 2007, there were an estimated 1.2 million lay catechetical leaders in Latin America, and another 2 million lay people taking on important roles in the church. Much of lay involvement takes place in small groups associated with the parish church, referred to as Small Christian Communities.

Typically, lay leaders are affirmed by their peers, approved by the clergy and enrolled in lengthy and rigorous training covering fundamental church teachings, group dynamics and the spiritual life. The laity see themselves not as a power group seeking to supplant the clergy and hierarchy, but rather as partners who are responsible for amplifying the work of the clergy. Women play a major role in this movement; and it has been my observation that more women than men are involved in leadership roles. There is evidence that lay participation and empowerment may be ameliorating the effects of the priest shortage in the region, first by fostering a noticeable increase in vocations in some places and, more impressively, by taking over many traditional clerical duties and responsibilities.

All over Latin America, lay men and women are running Small Christian Communities, presiding over worship, baptizing and teaching new members, ministering to the sick, leading community development projects, producing religious programming for the media, administering parishes, sitting on decision-making committees and the like.

This dynamic, spirit-filled, Latin American Church, with its deepening lay involvement and commitment to social justice, is the church Francis is familiar with, the church he has helped develop and lead. And it’s likely to be the church whose template he will seek to adapt and apply to Catholicism around the globe.

Michael J. Gent, Ph.D., is professor of organization studies at Canisius College. For four years, he and colleagues have been researching religion in El Salvador and in Latin America as a whole.