It could be said that, currently, Latin America is, demographically and culturally, the heartlands of the Catholic Church. Not only do two in five of the world’s Catholics live there, but Latin America has the highest proportion of Catholics of all the world’s regions. While much ink has been spilt about the hemorrhaging of Latin American faithful who are shunning Catholicism for Evangelical Protestant and Pentecostal sects, Mormonism, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, there is also a growing tide of secularism corroding Latin America’s Catholic culture. Nonetheless, conversations with numerous pilgrims from various countries in Central and South America show an optimistic image, of a Church that, despite these challenges, continues to be alive and full of youths on fire with their faith.
In Mexico and Central America, the secularist forces are not as strong; instead, the biggest challenges to the Church there are growing Protestant sects and political violence. On Wednesday, I waited in a claustrophobic crowd of pilgrims waiting for Pope Francis to make an impromptu appearance of the pontiff in the so-called “papal window” at the archbishops’ palace, following in the footsteps of Pope St. John Paul II, who made such appearances and conversed with the crowds of faithful during every visit to the historical Polish capital. During his 2006 visit to Poland, Benedict XVI did the same.
Standing in the crowd, I noticed a group of young people with the Salvadoran flag. “Salvadoreños, como el beato arzobispo Romero,” I said. They were very happy that I recognized this great beatified Salvadoran martyr, the archbishop of San Salvador who paid for defending the poor and victims of his nation’s brutal military dictatorship with his life. They showed me that all their shirts have images of the archbishop with his episcopal motto, Sentire cum ecclesia (“to be of one with the Church;” Romero’s motto perfectly shows that, contrary to those who have tried to paint him as Che Guevara in a zucchetto, his teaching and ministry were inspired by the Church’s Magisterium, not Marxist liberation theology). These pilgrims gave me a magnet with Romero’s image.
Talking to the Salvadorans, it was clear that the Church is very much alive in their country and that many young people there are active in their parishes. Without a doubt, the figure of Archbishop Romero and his martyrdom have inspired the Church in El Salvador, showing that, as Tertullian wrote, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. The Salvadorans I met were extremely friendly and they invited me to their country for the beautiful beaches and muy rica comida (very tasty food). I hope I’ll be able to take them up on this offer someday.
I also met pilgrims from another Central American country: Panama. Kabhir is a volunteer organizing World Youth Day, and he has come with his brother Jamed, a priest. When I asked him what it’s like to be a young Catholic in Panama and if secularism is a major problem in his country, Kabhir didn’t even mention secularizing trends, and painting an optimistic picture of young Catholics in the Central American nation.“Many young Panamanians participate in youth ministries,” he remarks, speaking of his own experience, “In my case, I’ve been active in youth ministry and my church choir since I was a child.”
Father Manuel is a priest from Merida in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico studying in Rome (he returns to his homeland later this year). Mexico is arguably the most staunchly Catholic country in Latin America, with a large number of vocations and strong popular devotion. However, many of the country’s intellectual and cultural elites are secular, and Mexico does have a long history of anti-clericalism. When I ask him if secularization is a growing concern in Mexico, he responds: “It’s definitely there. If you put up an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Facebook, you’ll get five to ten likes. But if you post about something completely secular, then you’ll get a hundred likes.”
Oh, if only Catholics in other parts of the world would have such worries! Talking to Father Manuel, it is clear that, as Mexico’s economy and middle class grow, Mexican Catholics are increasingly distracted by technology, consumerism, and other petty diversions. Yet he says that many young people continue to be active in the Church. Having seen many Mexican flags in Krakow, I take his word on it. Our Lady of Guadalupe and the legacy of the Cristeros continue to inspire Mexico’s strong faith.
Less optimistic is the situation in the “Cone” of South America: Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and southern Brazil. This area is ethnically and culturally the most European part of Latin America, and so is most prone to European secularizing cultural influences. Furthermore, these are the most economically developed parts of Latin America, making the cult of Mammon stronger than elsewhere. There, the overall religious situation is strikingly similar to, say, Spain, Portugal, and Italy: like these European countries, the “Cone” nations are strongly culturally Catholic societies where many people have crucifixes above their beds and images of saints in their homes, but Mass attendance is low and legislation often comes into conflict with the Church. Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil have all legalized same-sex “marriage;” Chile has recently legalized same-sex civil unions, and there is a strong legislative push to liberalize its abortion laws.
Yet even in this part of Latin America there is hope for renewal. One of my Brazilian friends, Tainara, a university student (who, unfortunately, was unable to come to Krakow), has told me that the situation of young Catholics in her country is difficult, as they have to deal with a wall of religious indifference. Has World Youth Day 2013, held in Rio de Janeiro, improved this situation?
I spoke to Camila, a consecrated missionary who came to WYD with a group of Italians. I asked her it is difficult to be a Catholic in today’s Brazil, and if World Youth Day 2013 was a boost for young Catholics there. “In Brazil, the majority is Catholic and it’s a very rich, joyous, and lively faith. Nonetheless, a lot of secularization is starting to happen here. Many young people are leaving the Church. However, the Church in Brazil is learning how to be heard. The Church is increasingly responding to the young people’s challenges, such as their struggles to find work. Still, I feel that the Brazilians’ faith is still very strong, very Catholic, and the Virgin, especially Our Lady of Aparecida, is still an important part of Brazilian culture.” Camila believes that World Youth Day 2013 helped teach the Church to communicate with the young better.
I was most curious to speak to pilgrims from Argentina, one of the least religious societies in the Americas. The state of Catholicism there is truly depressing; in Argentina, the number of seminarians has plummeted from 1,501 in 1999 to 827 in 2014. This year, just three priests were ordained in Buenos Aires, a see with more than 2.6 million Catholics (in New York, one of America’s most secular cities and with a Catholic population roughly equal to that of Buenos Aires, five times as many were ordained this year).
Yet Argentinean pilgrims in Krakow are still quite optimistic about the future of the Church there. When speaking to a group of young pilgrims from Santa Fe, they had no doubts that the enthusiasm related to the election of their countryman as pope was a game changer for seemingly moribund Argentinean Catholicism. They believe that the 2013 election gave a necessary spark that can rekindle the faith in their country. “Pope Francis made it much easier to get out on the street [in Argentina] and proclaim the faith. A lot of young Argentineans have responded to him, and here in Krakow there are 5,000,” says Macarena. Given the long distance from Argentina to Poland and the high costs of trans-Atlantic travel, it must be said that this is an impressive number.
Despite their diverse experiences, Latin American pilgrims at World Youth Day without exception are evidence that, despite encroaching threats, the Church there is alive and well. The situation in Mexico and Central America is more favorable than in the “Cone,” but even there one can find reason for optimism. What the Latin pilgrims all have in common, though, is that they are all excited about the rumor (which has been confirmed by numerous well-informed Vatican sources in the Italian media) that the next World Youth Day will be held closer to them. I can’t tell you where that will be, but I will give you a hint: the likely host country’s name is the same as the title of a Van Halen song.
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