Pope Francis’ fifth trip to Latin America in just five years as pontiff underscores his careful attempt to recapture the soul of the Roman Catholic Church in the region.
During his weeklong travel through Chile and Peru, the Argentine-born pope’s message often has stood in marked contrast to those delivered by his two predecessors, Pope Benedict XVI and the late John Paul II, who also made several trips to the continent once known for and often defined by its fervent Catholicism.
For decades, the church has steadily lost ground — both in membership and prestige — in Latin America, especially in staunchly Catholic Chile and Peru. The sexual abuse scandal, in which priests raped or molested minors and were often protected by their bishops, and the failure of John Paul, and to a lesser extent Benedict, to forcefully confront the problem eroded the credibility of institutionalized religion in Latin America especially.
In addition, the growth of secularism and, at the other end of the ideological spectrum, of evangelical Protestantism, reflected disaffection with Catholicism and further eroded the church’s stature. In the 1970s, when military dictatorships ruled much of Latin America, the church often catered to the wealthy and privileged, which also drove away worshippers, especially the poor.
Francis has emphasized his commitment for the poor and for the disadvantaged, such as the region’s large and neglected indigenous communities, those who wage the uphill fight to protect the environment and migrants.
“There is no Christian joy when doors are closed,” he said Thursday in the Chilean town of Iquique. “There is no Christian joy when others are made to feel unwanted, when there is no room for them in our midst.”
Two days earlier, he traveled to southern Chile to meet with the long-repressed indigenous Mapuche people, condemning “centuries of injustice” and egregious abuse of human rights, and adding that “the richness of every pueblo” must be welcomed. He pointedly made an environmental-destruction allusion, decrying the “deforestation of hope.”
Benedict, on the other hand, will long be remembered for controversial comments made during a visit to Brazil in May 2007, in which he said he believed native Latin Americans essentially welcomed their colonizers, the often-brutal, mostly Spanish conquistadores who brought religion but also disease, slaughter and slavery to the land.
And for John Paul, whose first overseas trip was to Mexico in 1979, Latin America was a dangerous laboratory for Marxist-tinged practices that he was determined to root out. He heeded the counsel of a conservative clergy that warned him against liberation theology, a sometimes left-leaning social activism in the church that advocates for the poor but was also used by a handful of priests to justify armed revolution.
John Paul eventually removed or punished priests who preached liberation theology.
In Peru, home to liberation theology’s founder, Gustavo Gutierrez, John Paul named as archbishop of Lima a member of the ultra-conservative Opus Dei organization, Juan Luis Cipriani, in 1999. Two years later, the pope elevated Cipriani to cardinal, one of only two Opus Dei members to receive such high ranking. Cipriani remains in the position today.
“Not surprisingly, Francis has a much deeper, more nuanced understanding of Latin America,” said Father Thomas Reese, like Francis a Jesuit, and a veteran commentator on the Vatican.
Francis has in fact sought to revive liberation theology in its pastoral application — not political but in what theologians call “base community” work in the region’s slums and marginalized areas.
The first pontiff from the Americas has drawn on his own experience. As a bishop and later cardinal in his native Buenos Aires, Francis often ministered to the poor, and he instructed the priests under his command to do the same. If they returned without mud on their shoes, the man then known as Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio would say they had failed in their mission.
“Experimentation was a dirty word” for many traditional clergy after the Second Vatican Council, which instituted many progressive reforms in the church in the mid-1960s, Reese said. “Not for Francis.”
Francis became pope in March 2013, after Benedict broke centuries of tradition and resigned. In addition to this week’s trip, his Latin American voyages include Brazil in 2013; Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay in 2015; Mexico in 2016, and Colombia last year.
Latin America remains the most Catholic continent, home to roughly 40% of the world’s Catholics, or more than 500 million people. But it has been steadily losing the faithful. In Chile, for example, a poll this month by the Santiago-based think tank Latinobarometro showed that the number of Chileans calling themselves Catholic fell to 45% last year, from 74% in 1995.
Perhaps most startling was the number now calling themselves atheist, agnostic or without a religion: 38%. (Even in relatively secular United States, the average is 22%.)
Despite his star power, Francis may not be able to stanch the hemorrhaging of church membership which has gone on for so long and had so many causes, said Andrew Chesnut, chairman of the Catholic Studies department at Virginia Commonwealth University.
He noted that losses in Chile actually accelerated in the last five years, following outrage over the case of Father Fernando Karadima, whom the Vatican accused of molesting boys for years following an investigation in 2011. Francis came under criticism for allowing a bishop — said to have been mentored by Karadima — to assume leadership of a diocese in southern Chile.
“This is the first solid evidence that the losses have continued even under his papacy,” Chesnut said.
Francis apologized for the abuse by Karadima and others in his first public comments after setting foot in Chile, and he held an unscheduled private meeting with victims in the Chilean capital, Santiago, on Tuesday. He made a similar gesture during a trip to the United States in 2015, as had Benedict, who was credited with beginning to address a scandal that John Paul had preferred to ignore.
“Words cannot completely alleviate my pain for the abuse you have suffered,” Francis said at the 2015 meeting. “I am profoundly sorry that your innocence has been violated by those whom you trusted.”
In Chile, around 70 priests and other church officials have been accused of abuse. In Peru, Francis may have attempted to inoculate himself from the issue by ordering Vatican takeover of the Christian Life Society, a conservative organization that Peruvian prosecutors are investigating for alleged sexual and psychological abuse by senior officials of young men and children.
The pope has also been strategic in scheduling a Mass or other ceremony to focus on youth, whose ranks have seen some of the highest desertions of faithful.