03/18/2013 01:12 pm ET Updated May 18, 2013

Pope Francis and the Preferential Option for the Latin American Poor

While the election of relatively unknown Cardinal Bergoglio surprised us all, his identity as a Latin American was anticipated by a few of us who are specialists in the region. More than a week before the Argentine cardinal was chosen pope I had made the case for his Brazilian confrere, Odilo Scherer, based on his country's paramount importance to the future of the global Church. And while the Argentine Church itself doesn't matter as much as the Brazilian behemoth, the fact that Francis is Latin American is momentous! Since the 1980s the Catholic hierarchy from Argentina to Mexico has been in a state of panic over fierce competition from Pentecostalism. Over the past five decades 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. Between losses to charismatic Protestantism and a growing number of the religiously unaffiliated, especially among the region's impoverished youth, Catholicism in Latin America finds itself at a critical juncture.

All Catholic roads lead to Latin America. With both the largest Catholic and Pentecostal populations on earth, the region is the most important in the world for the future of global Catholicism. Yet, since the 1950s the Catholic Church in Latin America has been hemorrhaging members, chiefly to Pentecostalism and secondarily to secularism. As recently as 1950, 99 percent of Brazilians were Catholic. Today only 63 percent are, while the Protestant population has skyrocketed from 1 percent to 22 percent during the same period! In fact Pentecostalism has proved so appealing that 10 years ago in my book, "Competitive Spirits: Latin America's New Religious Economy," I described the Christian landscape in Latin America as Pentecostalized. With Pentecostalism accounting for approximately 70 percent of all Latin American Protestants and a high percentages of Catholics claiming to be "charismatic" (for example, more than 60 percent of Brazilians and Guatemalans) those groups who don't offer Spirit-centered (pneumacentric) worship largely find themselves on the margins of the region's Christian landscape.

New Evangelization is the key to future Church growth and will thus most likely become the focal point of Pope Francis' papacy. Within the global context of competition with Pentecostalism in Latin America, Asia and Africa, and with Islam in the latter, the Church's strategy of New Evangelization, with a preferential option for the poor, holds the key to stanching the bleeding and even winning new converts. And no movement within the Church has been more successful in revitalizing dioceses and parishes throughout the Global South than the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, which is curiously stagnant in the Global North, especially among Euro-Americans and Europeans. A Catholic version of Pentecostalism, the CCR was made in the USA, having been conceived at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh in 1967, and was exported to Latin America just a few years later. Charismatic masses and weekend prayer vigils, featuring priests who sing and dance to spirited rhythms, pack soccer stadiums in Latin America and the Philippines. Brazilian CCR priest Marcelo Rossi, a former aerobics instructor, is the rock star of the movement in Latin America. His latest book is the number three best-seller in non-fiction (losing out to Pentecostal rival, Bishop Edir Macedo, whose autobiography, "Nothing to Lose," claims the top spot). Moreover his CDs of spirited sacred music sell millions and he is a regular on Brazil's secular talks show and in the mass media.

In Brazil and throughout the Southern Hemisphere, home to some two-thirds of all Catholics, it is this Spirit-centered type of Catholicism that is energizing the faithful and even winning new converts in Africa and parts of Asia. While not a Charismatic himself, the first Jesuit pope is a leading proponent of New Evangelization and has already made statements in that regard. In a radical reformulation of Liberation Theology's preferential option for the poor, which was mostly ignored by impoverished Latin Americans who opted for Pentecostalism intead, Pope Francis will refocus evangelization efforts on these the most vulnerable and strategic population sectors of the Global South. This time around, however, since the new pope is no friend of Liberation Theology, it will be a virgocentric and pneumacentric evangelization campaign that adopts a preferential option for the poor in Latin America and the rest of the Global South.