April 12, 2005


A battle for souls in Latin America: Catholic clergy try to revitalize flock (Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, April 13, 2005, Boston Globe)

As the sole priest in a parish serving 10,000 Catholics, Father Fabio Calizaya is a very busy man. On an ordinary day, he hangs his vestments after a late service at one of two churches and dons a native woven poncho to run from one evening discussion and prayer group to another.

In this southern Bolivian town that was once the largest and richest in all of Latin America thanks to its silver mines, Spanish colonial churches abound, but priests to serve them do not.

''We have 120,000 Catholics in this city, and only 23 priests," said Calizaya, 37. ''It's no wonder some people feel the Church has abandoned them and are going elsewhere" for spiritual guidance.

In El Alto, a hardscrabble migrant settlement above La Paz, Father Jose Fuentes, 44, struggles to serve 80,000 people in Jesus the Worker parish. In the Bolivian countryside, a single priest may minister to 60 or 70 far-flung farming communities and is lucky to visit each once a year.

A scarcity of priests is just one crisis facing the Roman Catholic Church as it seeks to remain relevant to the nearly half a billion Catholics in Latin America -- more than 40 percent of the world's flock. Across a region whose native populations were forcibly converted to Catholicism under colonial rule and where the Church still claims its strongest and most fervent foothold, disillusion and defections are on the rise. From Mexico to Argentina, a single priest is expected to serve between 5,000 and 10,000 Catholics on average, in comparison with one priest per 1,500 congregants in the United States, according to Church statistics.

A number of clerics and lay people are trying to revitalize the Church before it is too late, citing disappointment with the often distant relationship between priest and congregant; the formal Mass structure that allows scant participation; and the perceived failure of the Church to address gaping socioeconomic disparities in Latin America. According to some estimates by Protestant missionaries, the Catholic Church is losing thousands of followers a day in Latin America, where surveys indicate that the ranks of Protestant and evangelical sects have multiplied from 2 million in 1960 to about 50 million today.

If not a Third World pope, they at least need someone who feels a sense of urgency about meeting the needs of the faithful there.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 12, 2005 11:23 PM
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