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Pope Francis goes home: but what about the ‘evangelicos’?

A modest car with a message. Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

Pope Francis goes home: but what about the ‘evangelicos’?

So, what exactly was Pope Francis up to with his recent (July 8–12) trip to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay? These are not, after all, countries like, say, Brazil and Mexico, that press heavily against the region’s economic and political levers.

Clearly this was a pastoral visit to the vulnerable periphery and congruent with the pope’s recent encyclicals and pronouncements. Things seem to be changing fast in Rome, five years after I was invited there to observe the 2010 round of the International Roman Catholic-Pentecostal Dialogue.

Francisco’s (as he is known in Spanish) trip allows us to gauge whether that pace of reform is being matched in his former home of Latin America.

Something for everyone - almost

From the moment the Alitalia plane touched down in Ecuador, the observations began to flow and the expectations to grow.

Liberationists parsed statement and gesture for clues to Francisco’s vision of a church impoverishing itself for the sake of the poor. A brief stop en route to La Paz at the site of the 1980 martyrdom of fellow Jesuit Luis Espinal lifted hopes for his beatification alongside Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Both priests were slain by right-wing paramilitary forces.

Traditionalists welcomed homilies shoring up the family and marriage under Mary’s care. “In the heart of the family, no one is cast off,” Francisco told listeners at the Mass in Guayaquil, Ecuador, using his mother’s response to the question of which of her five children she favored the most: “If you squeeze any finger, all the rest hurt.”

Secularists, environmentalists and migrant advocates were all prepared for salutations from a fellow traveler at the Second World Meeting of Popular Movements in Bolivia.

Francisco laid out three concise principles: 1) an economy in service to humanity; 2) the independence and interdependence of peoples; and 3) the rescue of Mother Earth.

But even the most ardent advocate could not have expected Francisco to match president Evo Morales’ impassioned anti-imperialist litany word for word and emotion for emotion, and then to beg forgiveness for the Church’s complicity in early colonialism.

Overall, however, there were few surprises.

Francisco followed a script that, as then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, he co-wrote eight years ago in Aparecida, Brazil, when he helped to lead, together with his predecessor Benedict XVI, the last conclave of Latin American bishops (CELAM).

A ‘New Evangelization’

The 2007 Aparecida declaration built on CELAM 1992 that – under the guidance of John Paul II – began to flesh out the bishops’ understanding of the need to redo the colonial missionary project of yesteryear.

The Aparecida declaration bears Francisco’s deep imprint and can serve as a touchstone against which to measure the Church’s fortunes and misfortunes in Latin America over nearly a decade.

Not all the trends are favorable.

For example, the Pew Research Institute’s November 2014 report found that although 84% of Latin American respondents were raised Catholic, only 69% remain so today.

The 15-point slippage is even more drastic – up to three times higher – among indigenous populations.

Perhaps the hope is that Francisco’s charisma will help to staunch the flow. We have been here before – think John Paul II, whose visits, like Francisco’s, inspired catchy tunes like pop singer Roberto Carlos’ “Tú eres mi hermano del alma realmente el amigo” (You are my brother of the soul and true friend).

In homage to John Paul II.

But the numbers demonstrate the limits of charisma. They also present a puzzle: why no recognition of Christian diversity during Francisco’s visit?

The clue may lie in Ecuador, a country that plays an outsized role in the story of evangelical, or evangélico, growth.

Ecuador: airwaves and the blood of martyrs

It was in 1941 that Quito’s radio station HJCB, the “Voice of the Andes,” began radio evangelism and civil programming in the Quichua (indigenous) language.

HJCB was, in fact, the first Christian-owned missionary radio station in the world.

Fourteen years later, the death of missionary and Oregon native Jim Elliot and four others at the hands of hitherto isolated Auca Huaorani Indians proved another turning point.

Two years later, the story was immortalized by Elliot’s widow in her bestselling book, The Gates of Splendor. Elliot herself went on to live with the Auca and convert many of them.

Indeed, it was the subsequent conversion of many Aucas that fired evangelical missionary passions over the next half-century, much like that of Jesuits in Paraguay and elsewhere did Catholic ones in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Today, thanks to the patient work of groups like the Summer Institute of Linguistics, the Bible is more likely to be read and heard in native tongues in evangélico settings than in Catholic ones.

The bishops gathered in Aparecida in 2007 were well aware of these trends.

High stakes

Their declaration noted the contrast between an 80% population growth in the 1974–2000 period and a mere 44% growth in the number of priests and, more disconcerting, only an eight percent increase in the number of women religious.

The thinning pastoral coverage was in great contrast to the thickening one offered by evangélico preachers. Today, according to Pew, although one in 10 Latin Americans was raised Protestant, one in five identify themselves as such.

Small wonder, then, that on Wednesday morning, before heading to the Quito airport, Francisco set aside his prepared remarks in a meeting with seminarians, priests and nuns and spoke from the heart about religious vocations.

Importantly, he warned about a “spiritual amnesia” that can distance Catholic clergy from their ethnic and communal roots. Such a condition generally does not afflict the masses of evangélico preachers drawn from the peasant and working classes and who do not go away to seminary.

One indigenous Bolivian who has not left the Catholic Church. STRINGER Bolivia/Reuters

The rise of Pentecostal Christianity in Latin America in the last four decades has created a veritable cottage industry of social scientific scholarship from Middlebury anthropologist David Stoll’s Is Latin America Turning Protestant? to Virginia Commonwealth University religious studies scholar Andrew Chesnut’s Competitive Spirits – just to name a couple. If the deep theological bench on the Catholic side of the Dialogue I observed is any indication, the Vatican is well-read on the topic.

Why, then, the glaring absence of any ecumenical outreach to Protestants on this trip?

Francisco, after all, is the first pope to meet with Italian Pentecostals and Waldensians (a proto-Protestant movement in northern Italy that predates Luther by centuries). He asked for their forgiveness for past intolerance and persecution.

Well, that was Italy. In Latin America things are different.

Unlike their counterparts in the United States and Europe – where ecumenism is the outcome of a long process of accommodation between relatively equal institutions embedded in secular nation states – Latin American bishops still wield a big stick in the public square.

This status is hard to relinquish.

As long as the Ecuadorian, Bolivian and Paraguayan hierarchies can continue to claim to speak for the vast majority of their countrymen (the three countries still rank as the most Catholic in the hemisphere), a dialogue with upstart Pentecostals (who, according to Pew, comprise up to three-fourths of Protestants) can be postponed.

Perhaps Francisco’s homecoming was meant – on top of everything else – to be a gesture toward the Church’s many prodigals, the ones whose defection – to non-Catholic options and to no religion – the Pew report documents.

Now, at least, he has secured a hearing from them with his prophetic encyclicals, pastoral acumen, administrative reforms and downscale lifestyle.

However, it remains to be seen whether his hosts and former Latin American bishop colleagues continue the conversation, and whether that conversation will be truly a two-way street.

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