No matter how exciting it is for Latino Catholics to have one of their own as pope, though, Francis' election "won't completely wipe out Pentecostal advances," says Timothy Matovina, an expert on Latin American Catholicism at Notre Dame. "One man will not likely change the trends of a whole continent."
After all, since the 1980s, Evangelical and Pentecostal movements have increasingly eroded the historic church's numbers, drawing millions of former Catholics into their churches. In the pope's home country of Argentina, for example, only 20 percent of Catholics regularly practice the faith, according to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
A steady stream of Mormon missionaries also has found Latin America to be prime territory for converts to the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses have grown even faster.
The new pope's greatest impact, Matovina says, will be "to inspire Catholics on the ground to do their part to evangelize in the name of the Catholic faith."
Latino Catholics, the Notre Dame scholar says, "will be inspired and animated."
And they will be thrilled and touched the first time their Holy Father speaks in his native tongue, Spanish.
Even for an academic such as Matovina, he says, it will be "an emotional moment."
But will it change anything?
A dominant faith • Catholics have owned the religious territory south of the border since the Spanish arrived in the hemisphere a few hundred years ago. The explorers brought their faith with them from the old world, largely eliminated the Indians' religion and never mentioned the Protestant Reformation. As a result, Catholicism became synonymous with South American religion, entwined with the culture and government.
By the 1980s, however, other proselytizing churches arrived, offering smaller settings for worship and freer forms of worship. Pentecostal preachers set up churches in homes, or small store fronts, providing lively sermons and music. New religious movements including Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists also scoured the countries, finding new members among dissatisfied Catholics. By some estimates, Catholicism has lost up to 20 percent of its members since this proselytizing onslaught.
One of the many attractions of Pentecostal and Evangelical churches, Matovina says, is that they have more "indigenous leadership."
Their ministers do not have the lengthy, rigorous training of a Catholic priest, he says, "but that is often an advantage. They are close to the people in education and social rank."
What the influx of these other religions has done to Catholicism goes beyond numbers: It has introduced the idea of choice.
Years ago, Matovino worked in a rural Mexican village that was totally Catholic. It was the only faith the people knew. When various Protestant and other Christian faiths arrived, they presented Latin Americans with the notion, he says, that "religion is something you choose, rather than something you inherited."
Once that happens, "secularization is soon to follow," he says. "It is not because people talked themselves into an atheist corner like they do in the U.S., but because they've changed several times so eventually decide just to go their own route."
The marketplace of religions came to Latin America during a "revolutionary transformation of demography from rural to urban living," Matovino says. "It was a time of tremendous upheaval."
Pentecostalism in particular appealed to people who were detached from their ancestral home and trying to make it in the teeming, impersonal cities. Other new faiths also provided support and intimacy.
The small churches offered, he says, "hope to displaced poor in a time of despair."
But do the numbers of Catholics leaving and joining other faiths add up?
Sheep stealing or fluid faith? • Today, nearly 300 million people, or 72 percent of Latin America's population, is Catholic, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Pentecostalism claims about 75 million adherents in South America, most of whom were former Catholics. Both Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventist Churches are growing rapidly.
The LDS Church, too, sees Latin America as its success story. From 1990 to 2012, the total LDS population in South America rose dramatically from fewer than 1 million to more than 3.5 million. In the early 1990s, there were only four LDS temples on the whole continent; now there are 41 including the second Argentine temple now being built nearly a fourth of the church's total number. It sends nearly half of its missionary force to proselytize in the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking nations.
Membership figures don't tell the whole story, of course, as there is a large discrepancy between the numbers on the rolls and those in the pews every week.
The real figure is about 25 percent of the total, a ratio that has held steady for years despite many attempts to improve it, says LDS demographer Matt Martinich, who compiles and analyzes LDS data for the website cumorah.com. "A lot of converts who are found by missionaries, never socially integrate into a congregation and so go inactive."
A better figure is LDS Church congregational growth, which requires a certain number of lay members for a new ward or branch to be created, says Martinich of Colorado Springs, Colo. "We haven't seen real congregational growth over the past decade."
Still, Mormon leaders remain hopeful a large number of new LDS missions created earlier this month were in Latin America.
The problem with religious data in Latin America, says Utah Valley University anthropologist David Knowlton, is that it is built on Protestant assumptions about membership, namely that to be counted, one must attend services regularly. But that's not the way Catholics view their faith,
Knowlton, who is an expert in Latin American cultures and faiths, sees two kinds of Catholicism congregational and popular.
The former type is characterized by Mass attendance and participation in confession, while the latter involves rites of passage such as baptism, First Communion, weddings and funerals, he says. Catholicism is still extremely strong as part of Latin American life, especially at times of crisis, even if many people don't participate fully in its rituals and practices.
These kinds of Catholics may still pray to Mary or celebrate some of the festivals, even after they become Pentecostal or Mormon, he says. "People are exploring a whole range of religious possibilities and these are too complex to explain with simple numbers."
Henri Gooren, an international religion expert at Oakland University in Michigan, is skeptical about the new pope's ability to alter the religious calculus in Latin America.
"The pope will only energize [highly] committed Catholics, [who] are unlikely to drop out and become Pentecostals or Mormons anyway," Gooren said in an email. "I doubt if the pope will have much of an impact on nominal Catholics; the kind of cultural Catholics who were never much socialized into [orthodox] Catholicism in the first place."
Even Utah Bishop John Wester doesn't see the new pope as being a religious tipping point.
While selecting a humble Argentine pope may initially electrify the church, providing a "big bump," Wester said Friday, in the long term, religious folk "will continue to do what they want."
Ultimately, the return of Catholics will depend a lot, he says, on whether people see the church as "a welcoming and hospitable place where people can come and connect with the Lord and each other."
It will take more than a pope to make that happen.
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Religious affiliation in Latin America
Roman Catholic • 300 million
Pentecostal • 75 million
Mormon • 5.65 million
Seventh-day Adventist • 5.60 million
Jehovah's Witnesses • 2.56 million
Source • Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life; lds.org, adventistyearbook.org, and cumorah.com