Will new pope affect Mormon, Pentecostal growth in South America?

Will new pope affect Mormon, Pentecostal growth in South America?

Francis’ Argentine roots may help Catholic Church prevent more defections.

By Peggy Fletcher Stack

The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Mar 15 2013 03:49 pm • Last Updated Mar 18 2013 02:36 pm

The race for Latin American souls intensified this week with the naming of a new Catholic team captain: Pope Francis.

By choosing an Argentinian-born pontiff, the Catholic Church may be hoping to win back millions of its South American adherents who have turned to Pentecostalism, Evangelicalism, Mormonism and other faiths for spiritual solace.

Benedict XVI, now pope emeritus, had already named 2013 “The Year of Evangelism.” And his successor, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, is reportedly even more determined to seek out the church’s lost sheep.

No matter how exciting it is for Latino Catholics to have one of their own as pope, though, Francis’ election “won’t completely wipe out Pentecostal advances,” says Timothy Matovina, an expert on Latin American Catholicism at Notre Dame. “One man will not likely change the trends of a whole continent.”

After all, since the 1980s, Evangelical and Pentecostal movements have increasingly eroded the historic church’s numbers, drawing millions of former Catholics into their churches. In the pope’s home country of Argentina, for example, only 20 percent of Catholics regularly practice the faith, according to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

A steady stream of Mormon missionaries also has found Latin America to be prime territory for converts to the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses have grown even faster.

The new pope’s greatest impact, Matovina says, will be “to inspire Catholics on the ground to do their part to evangelize in the name of the Catholic faith.”

Latino Catholics, the Notre Dame scholar says, “will be inspired and animated.”

And they will be thrilled and touched the first time their Holy Father speaks in his native tongue, Spanish.

Even for an academic such as Matovina, he says, it will be “an emotional moment.”But will it change anything?

A dominant faith » Catholics have owned the religious territory south of the border since the Spanish arrived in the hemisphere a few hundred years ago. The explorers brought their faith with them from the old world, largely eliminated the Indians’ religion and never mentioned the Protestant Reformation. As a result, Catholicism became synonymous with South American religion, entwined with the culture and government.