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For millions of Latin Americans, the selection of an Argentine cardinal as the newest pope of the Roman Catholic Church was an epic occasion.
A celebrant outside the metropolitan cathedral in Buenos Aires compared the moment to winning the World Cup in soccer. A Franciscan friar from Puerto Rico noted: “We waited 20 centuries.” The Buenos Aires Herald proclaimed the selection of Pope Francis “a realignment” of the entire region.
Soledad Loaeza—a professor at the Colegio de Mexico—offered another observation: “It may also be an attempt to stop the decline in the number of Catholics.”
Latin America has a massive number of Catholics: About 480 million of the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide live in the region. But the region has also experienced a dramatic rise in the growth of evangelicals over the last three decades.
Indeed, Operation World calls the pace of evangelical growth in Latin America over the last century “spectacular.” In 1900, the region was almost entirely Catholic. Evangelicals comprised about 1 percent of the population. By 2010, that number had jumped to as much as 17 percent. In Brazil, the number is even higher: In a decade, evangelicals grew from 15.4 percent of the population to more than 22 percent—about 42 million people.
Part of the growth has stemmed from many Latin Americans migrating from rural areas to larger cities to search for jobs. Evangelical pastors and missionaries reached more people at one time, and also provided critical aid to impoverished populations.
The growth also stems from an explosion in the number of Pentecostals—the predominant group among evangelicals in Latin America.
The rise of the so-called prosperity gospel in some Pentecostal churches presents a significant challenge to other evangelicals in the region. (Edir Macedo, founder of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in Brazil, is worth $950 million, according to some estimates.)
Still, Operation World attributes much of the evangelical growth to “the steady, faithful proclamation and witness of tens of thousands of laymen and pastors planting small churches out of a passion for the gospel.” Another encouraging trend: Latin American nations are sending a steady number of missionaries to other nations around the world.
That growth hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Catholic Church, and in recent years leaders have emphasized efforts to make the church’s teaching more accessible to the masses. Some see the selection of Pope Francis as an additional boost for a region that’s a critical chunk of the Catholic Church.
Meanwhile, Catholics and evangelicals also share challenges, including a growing number of secularists in Latin America, and a growing lobby for pro-abortion and pro-gay causes. Pope Francis has opposed both abortion and “gay marriage” in the past. (He once compared abortion to the death penalty.)
Those issues didn’t come up in the first days of his papacy, but in his inaugural Mass, the pope did pledge to protect the vulnerable and “embrace with affection and tenderness all of humanity, in particular the poorest, the weakest, the smallest.”