Latin America

The man from Buenos Aires vs. dead Catholic museums

BUENOS AIRES -- It's hard to wrestle with the crucial moral and cultural issues in modern Argentina without getting Catholic and Protestant leaders into the same room. During one tense gathering, some Catholic speakers kept referring to decades of rapid growth by "evangelical cults" in Latin America. The assumption seemed to be that evangelical Protestants were all the same, with no real differences between, for example, the freewheeling "prosperity Gospel" preachers and ordinary Protestant flocks.

This went on and on and evangelical leaders started feeling attacked, said the Rev. Nestor Miguez, president of the Federation of Evangelical Churches of Argentine.

Then, during a break, a crucial player pulled him aside. Expressing sympathy, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio asked for a short paper describing how different evangelical groups "understand themselves and how they see themselves as part of church life in Argentina," said Nestor, speaking through a translator at a conference this week on "Journalism and Religion in Latin America."

"It is clear that he took this seriously because I can still recognize some of the language from that little three-page paper in his remarks about evangelicals and other churches, even now as Pope Francis," said Nestor, of the Evangelical Methodist Church. "This is crucial. This is a man who truly listens. He is not pretending to listen. He is listening. ... This is at the heart of who he is as a man."

According to several conference speakers who knew Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, it isn't surprising that his first major papal statement -- an "apostolic exhortation" called Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel") -- focuses on pastoral issues facing priests, bishops and laypeople. While the document addresses hot topics such as abortion, economic justice and the role of women, the vast majority of its 217 pages focus on missions, evangelization, preaching and pastoral care.

The pope tweaks "sourpusses" in the church who resemble "Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter." A true evangelizer, he adds, "must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!" In one passage, Pope Francis describes the "biggest threat of all" in church life, which is a "tomb psychology" that slowly "transforms Christians into mummies in a muse¬um."

The pope adds: "Here I repeat ... what I have often said to the priests and laity of Buenos Aires: I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rath¬er than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security."

While repeatedly defending Catholic doctrines, Pope Francis also pleads for Catholics -- including at the Vatican and in the papacy -- to seek innovations in structure, communications and pastoral care in the name of effective missions and evangelization. Catholic leaders must not be content to address the people still in their pews, but dare to reach out to marginalized Catholics and to all who are open to conversion.

Otherwise, the church can become "a museum piece or something which is the property of a select few. ... This way of thinking also feeds the vain¬glory of those who are content to have a mod¬icum of power and would rather be the general of a defeated army than a mere private in a unit which continues to fight. "

The "museum" references may be linked to Latin America, said the Rev. Salvador Dellutri, a Church of the Brethren pastor who worked closely with Bergoglio on projects for the Argentine Bible Society. While the future pope led an institution with great prestige due to centuries of ties with the political and cultural establishment, he was increasingly candid about his church's struggles in an age of globalization, moral relativism and mass media.

"He worries about a kind of fake Christianity that in the past became a way of life for many," said Dellutri, through a translator. "But if people are worried that Francis wants to turn the Catholic church into some other church, this is not going to happen. ... This pope remains close to the doctrines of his church. Divorce is a sin to this pope. Abortion is a sin to this pope. But he wants to express mercy to sinners and, if possible, to bring them into the church.

"You cannot say this too much: This man is a pastor. He wants the church to be known more for its actions than for its words."

Sobering words for Brazil's bishops

If Roman Catholicism can be compared with a fleet, then the Brazilian church has long been it's largest aircraft carrier -- with an estimated 123 million Catholics, more than any other country on earth. But that isn't how Pope Francis described this church during one of the less-publicized addresses during his epic World Youth Day sojourn in Rio de Janeiro. Instead of a rich and powerful vessel for the old establishment, he told Brazil's bishops that their church is now a humble sailing ship surrounded by the giant ships of globalization and Protestantism.

"The Church's barque is not as powerful as the great transatlantic liners which cross the ocean," said Francis, in the first of two lengthy, serious addresses to bishops from this region.

"Dear brothers, the results of our pastoral work do not depend on a wealth of resources, but on the creativity of love. ... Another lesson which the Church must constantly recall is that she cannot leave simplicity behind; otherwise she forgets how to speak the language of Mystery," said the official text. "At times we lose people because they don't understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity and import an intellectualism foreign to our people."

The Argentinean pope didn't have to do the math concerning Brazil's 275 dioceses. As noted in a July 18 analysis from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Catholic fortunes have clearly declined there in the 21st Century. Between 2000 and 2010, Catholics dropped from 74 percent of Brazil's population to 65 percent. In that same period, Protestantism grew from 15 percent of the population to 22 percent.

The rise in Pentecostalism has been particularly striking, with 6 percent of Brazil's population attending these churches in 1991 -- compared with 13 percent in 2010.

The texts from Pope Francis made it clear that he thinks the evangelistic efforts of local clergy have been weak and, in particular, that they must regain a common touch that resonates with the poor, the weak and those yearning for spiritual experiences that transcend mere lectures.

Comparing Catholicism's ancient traditions with the city of Jerusalem, the pope asked Brazil's bishops if they still have what it takes to win those who have fled their altars seeking forms of faith considered "more lofty, more powerful and faster" than the Catholicism that is their heritage.

"I would like all of us to ask ourselves today: Are we still a Church capable of warming hearts? A Church capable of leading people back to Jerusalem? Of bringing them home? Jerusalem is where our roots are: Scripture, catechesis, sacraments, community, friendship with the Lord, Mary and the apostles," he said. "Are we still able to speak of these roots in a way that will revive a sense of wonder at their beauty? ...

"People today are attracted by things that are faster and faster: rapid Internet connections, speedy cars and planes, instant relationships. But at the same time we see a desperate need for calmness, I would even say slowness. Is the Church still able to move slowly: to take the time to listen, to have the patience to mend and reassemble? Or is the Church herself caught up in the frantic pursuit of efficiency?"

When it comes to training pastors capable of doing this work, there is no quick fix and, warned Francis, "Bishops may not delegate this task."

By the time he addressed conference leaders from Latin America and the Caribbean, shortly before leaving the country, Pope Francis was openly stating his desire for bishops to leave the comfort of their ecclesiastical fortresses and to return to the pastoral front lines, working elbow to elbow with their people.

As one observer told "Whispers in the Loggia" blogger Rocco Palmo, "This will cause heart failure in certain quarters." The pope appealed for better preaching, improved Bible studies, a renewed presence among the poor, expanded use of the talents of women and a true openness to laypeople providing parish-level leadership in cooperation with their pastors.

"The key," said Palmo, via email, "is that Francis is far more invested on the 'culture war' inside the church" than in controversies about public issues that make headlines. The pope is "literally declaring war on the clericalism, decadence, etc. that he sees inside the walls than anything going on in the world outside."

An earthy reality in the words of Pope Francis

There is nothing unusual about a Catholic leader urging priests to draw closer to their flocks, to focus on day-to-day issues that bridge the gap between pulpit and pew. Still, it caught Vatican insiders off guard when Pope Francis, a week after his installation Mass, used a somewhat pungent image when discussing this problem.

"This is precisely the reason for the dissatisfaction of some, who end up sad -- sad priests -- in some sense becoming collectors of antiques or novelties, instead of being shepherds living with the smell of the sheep," he said. "This I ask you: be shepherds, with the 'odor of the sheep,' make it real, as shepherds among your flock, fishers of men."

At this point, "it's safe to say everyone in the Catholic world knows that line, if they're paying attention at all," said Father Robert Barron, president of Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake near Chicago. He is also known for his work as founder of the Word on Fire media ministry and as an NBC News analyst.

It's easy, when talking about this pope's back-to-basics style, to stress his life in Argentina, growing up in the home of immigrants from northern Italy. But when considering his preaching, said Barron, the key is to remember his experience at the parish and diocesan levels. While Pope Benedict XVI speaks with the precision of an academic comfortable in European classrooms, Pope Francis has spent much of his life preaching in slums.

"When you look at him in the pulpit you just have to say, 'This is a preacher in a parish.' He's going up there with notes, not a formal five-page text" the Vatican press officers distributed in advance, said Barron, in a telephone interview. "Every now and then you catch him looking up with a kind of twinkle in his eyes and you can tell he's enjoying what he's doing, what he's saying."

Recently, the conservative journal First Things collected a few "vivid images" drawn from early sermons and remarks by the Jesuit pope. For example, the pope has warned Catholics not to focus on temporary things and, thus, become "teen-agers for life." On another occasion, he said some Catholics complain so often they could become "Mr. or Mrs. Whiner" or end up with faces resembling "pickled peppers."

Other sound bites in this list included:

* On March 14, Francis used a bit of policy wonk lingo: "We can walk as much as we want, we can build many things, but if we do not profess Jesus Christ, things go wrong. We may become a charitable NGO, but not the church, the bride of the Lord."

* It's crucial for Catholics to live their faith, not just talk about it privately, the pope said in mid-April: "When we do this the church becomes a mother church that bears children. ... But when we don't do it, the church becomes not a mother but a babysitter church, which takes care of the child to put him to sleep."

* While some insist on talking about faith in vague terms, Francis reminded an April 18 audience: "When we talk to God we speak with persons who are concrete and tangible, not some misty, diffused god-like 'god-spray,' that’s a little bit everywhere but who knows what it is."

* Stressing the importance of Easter, he noted: "Efforts have often been made to blur faith in the Resurrection of Jesus and doubts have crept in, even among believers. It is a little like that 'rosewater' faith, as we say; it is not a strong faith. And this is due to superficiality and sometimes to indifference, busy as we are with a thousand things considered more important than faith, or because we have a view of life that is solely horizontal."

What runs through these words is the new pope's desire to awaken in his listeners a "religious sense," a "religious sensibility" that insists that there is more to life in the real world than mere materialism, said Barron.

Pope Francis knows that "if you want people to act, you have to touch them at the level of the real, the earthy and the practical," he said. "As a pastor, he has used this language before. Now he is using these kinds of images again -- from the throne of St. Peter."