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Pope Francis and the Battle for Latin America's Soul

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Pope Francis I arrived in Brazil Monday to begin the first trip to Latin America of the first Latin American pope. Whatever your views on his mission, it is a historic visit, with potentially broad implications for the region.

Despite massive security, the trip seemed to get off to a rocky beginning when the motorcade in Rio became immobilized in choking traffic and enthusiastic bystanders repeatedly breached the security cordon to approach the Pontiff. But Francis appeared to be in his element, working among the people in the wonderful chaos of Latin America that requires patience and flexibility.

Indeed, in such a scenario, WWJD? We know the answer: rather than hiding away behind security, He waded into surging crowds with enthusiasm, leaving the flustered disciples to come along behind.

Francis, who has spent a life working among the people of the barrios in Buenos Aires and who eschews the trappings of office including intrusive security, is attempting similarly to turn expectations of papal protocol on their head. And it's precisely this approach that many in Latin America see as a critical need even as the world's largest Catholic nation, Brazil, sheds adherents. That pattern is being repeated across Latin America as the Catholic church faces massive social and economic changes as well as the rapid growth of Protestant evangelicalism.

The percentage of Catholics in the Brazilian population dropped from 93 in 1960 to 65 in 2010. According to observers much of this has to do with a perception that the Catholic church is "out of touch" with modern sensibilities in the region. This answer is too easy. Why? Because Christianity itself was founded, by definition, against prevailing sensibilities. Jesus said that He came to earth to "seek and save the lost." He did not come to build empires, live in luxury, or give succor to prevailing political or spiritual leaders. He was and is the ultimate "out of touch" personality, claiming to be God and rejecting existing institutions on earth. And this, from the book of Hebrews: "Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow." In other words, the original Christian message remains; it has not been revoked or reworked, and He will find ways to reach those who would respond to it, whether through the Catholic church or by other means.

Numerous news reports have portrayed the migration of adherents from the Catholic church to Protestant evangelical churches as a threat. But from a broader perspective the vibrancy of the Christian church across Latin America in some ways has never been greater. For years, as I wrote in Americas Quarterly just prior to the election of Pope Francis, the growing influence of evangelicals across Latin America has been noted by observers. Adherents have multiplied dramatically, building on a base established primarily but not exclusively from North American missionaries working within the region. But the pattern of evangelization is rapidly changing. In fact, the mentality of Latin American evangelical churches is changing from being receivers of missionaries to being senders of missionaries.

In 1987, for example, Latin missionaries numbered approximately 1,350, according to Latin America Mission statistics. Today, that number is in excess of 16,000, perhaps evenly divided between those working in Latin America and those working outside the region, in areas as far afield and often difficult for North Americans to reach as Russia, Africa, and the Muslim world. Current trends show no signs of slowing, lending a powerful and uniquely Latin American voice to the global missions movement.

This is revolutionary. Latin America today is not solely a mission field, but also now a growing source of gifted, qualified and capable missionaries throughout the Western Hemisphere and indeed to other parts of the world. Even as the United States and European nations race to secularize, Christianity is growing apace across Latin America. At the same time, the Christianity that Latin America increasingly professes is less formal, more socially conscious, and more driven by a yearning to connect directly with the God of the universe. It is less tolerant of scandal or abuse, class, or privilege, and appropriately demands that Christian leaders lead by example, rather than fiat.

And in this way, Pope Francis has made quite a strong impression already in just the four months since he has been at the Vatican. His no-frills lifestyle, his efforts to improve the lives of the poor and downtrodden, and his Gospel-centered message have struck the right chord among Latin Americans, even those who may not be actively in the faith. They see the Pope as authentic. It is precisely for this reason why he may also have a growing political impact across the region, and why some regional leaders may actually find it inconvenient to have a pope originally from Latin America.

In the meantime, Francis has returned to a Latin America changing virtually by the day. New challenges face the church that he now leads. The question is, which direction does he want to lead it, and how will Latin Americans respond? And, will his efforts to "live the Gospel" among the people co-exist with security requirements? Given the prominent role that the Catholic church has played traditionally in the region, it will be fascinating to watch how these issues evolve.