Latin America’s scarcity of priests creates new need
VALLE DE CHALCO, MEXICO – As Roman Catholic cardinals began contemplating Pope John Paul II’s replacement last week, 30 poor women gathered in a threadbare parish church on the edge of Mexico City, planning the faith’s fate in their own community.
Though the cardinals will determine the future leader of the church, the active faithful such as these women might well forge its real destiny.
“These women are the future of the church,” said David Noriega, the 36-year-old Jesuit priest of the parish in Valle de Chalco, a working-class city founded by squatters several decades ago. “They are limited by their poverty. But they are the hope.”
The Vatican needs all the hope, and the help, it can get these days in Latin America, which accounts for about 40 percent of the world’s Catholics. The church may still be dominant in the region, but it’s now far from universal.
An array of spiritual beliefs and political tendencies fractures the church. Millions of its believers have deserted to evangelical Protestant faiths. The ranks of priests and nuns continue to dwindle even as the total number of Catholics expands with the rocketing population.
“Catholics are diminishing, but they have not necessarily gone to the evangelicals,” Noriega said. “They’ve become nonpracticing.
“Now with the passing of the pope, there are a lot of Catholics,” Noriega said with a trace of irony. “There are many who declare their faith but do not live it.”
In many respects, Catholicism’s way forward in Mexico and the rest of Latin America rests with lay activists such as the Chalco women, who often find themselves at odds with the bishops and cardinals who ostensibly rule the church.
Although enormously popular in the region, John Paul’s policies sometimes ran contrary to the daily lives of many Catholics here, even as the lack of clergy widened the gulf between the Vatican and its faithful, some analysts say.
“The church has lost touch with its people because it doesn’t have priests,” said anthropologist Elio Masferrer, an authority on religious faith in Mexico. “This is a church with problems.”
Only 15,000 priests serve Mexico’s 85 million Catholics. That means an average of one priest for every 5,600 baptized members of the church. In some areas of the country, Masferrer said, the priest/faithful ratio climbs to 1 per 40,000.
“The church’s challenge is how to prepare for the third millennium,” he said.
The cardinals will begin choosing the new leader of the world’s nearly 1.1 billion Catholics eight days from now inside the ornate Sistine Chapel.
A handful of cardinals from Latin America are said to be among the contenders. They include Norberto Rivera Carrera, of Mexico; Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, of Honduras; Claudio Hummes, of Brazil; and Jose Mario Bergoglio, of Argentina.
A Latin American pope “would be huge” for the region’s Catholics, said Hannah Stewart-Gambino, a political scientist at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania who studies the church. “It will matter to Latin Americans, who have felt neglected.”
Only the voting cardinals know — or will know — whether any or all of these men have a real chance at sitting on the papal throne. But the larger question for many here is what the new pope, wherever he’s from, will mean for the church.
“It’s not a geographical problem but one of ideas,” Masferrer said. “The problem is not where the pope comes from. The point is that whoever arrives will have to decide what positions to take in this world.”
Most voting cardinals were appointed in the past 26 years by John Paul, leading many to speculate that the next pope’s policieswon’t change much.
At any rate, no new pope seems likely to fully satisfy all of the region’s multifaceted Catholics.
The needs of the church in Chile or Argentina differ from those in Mexico or Brazil. Those of the church’s poor majority often do not correspond with its wealthier few.
In Mexico alone, Masferrer said, the church encompasses Catholics who adhere to the leftist liberation theology and others to what he called the “theology of prosperity.”
Catholic charismatics sometimes speak in tongues and practice faith healing. By contrast, members of Opus Dei and the Legionnaires of Christ follow sterner traditional dictates.
Many millions of Mexicans anchor their faith in devotion to the saints and especially to the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose reported appearance to an Aztec peasant soon after the Spanish Conquest sealed the church’s role in this society.
Telegenic and well-traveled, the conservative John Paul seemed to almost effortlessly navigate those currents.
He appointed members of Opus Dei to top Vatican offices and canonized the movement’s founder. He invoked the Virgin of Guadalupe as his “guide” on trips to Mexico and elsewhere in the Americas. Even as he opposed clergy preaching what some called a “preferential option for the poor,” John Paul championed the region’s impoverished majority and praised its indigenous cultures.
“It’s going to be very difficult for whatever pope comes,” said Maria Inez Parra, 25, who was visiting a parish in Mexico City last week to arrange for the baptism of her 2-month-old son. “He’s going to face the same problems as John Paul but not have the same charisma.”
“We have to have a pope who is very reform-minded,” she said. “People are changing.”
With the dearth of clergy in Mexico, many pastoral roles are carried out by the 150,000 catechists and other lay leaders, including the Chalco women.
“The important work is not here in the church but in homes, in the neighborhoods,” said Noriega, the Jesuit priest. “Our hierarchy has become insular. They have abandoned this population.”
Like countless other slums surrounding cities from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego, Valle de Chalco sprang from the soil and was built with the sweat and stubbornness of its residents. Many settled here after Mexico City’s 1985 earthquake.
Through two decades of protests, pressure and political back-scratching, activists such as those gathered in the parish church helped transform their community. The original scramble of hovels has been slowly flowering into a city of paved streets and the occasional multistory house.
Many challenges remain. Jobs are scarce, youth gangs common. New schools never keep pace with the numbers of children.
On the hot afternoon they gathered in the parish church last week, the women focused on Catholics’ obligations to politics in preparation for this summer’s local and state elections.
Seated on plastic chairs, feet planted on the cool tile floor, the women listened intently as Veronica Peralta, a visiting activist, ran through what she said were the electoral responsibilities of the dutiful Catholic.
“Today the church considers it to be more grave to commit a social sin than an individual sin,” Peralta said twice as the group read a pastoral letter calling for political awareness.
The message was endorsed by all but a few of Mexico’s bishops, Peralta said. Among those not supporting it were Cardinal Rivera, the archbishop of Mexico City.
From the moment he became pope in 1978, John Paul’s Vatican took a hostile stance to nonspiritual activism within the so-called “popular church,” which since the late 1960s has sought to mix religion and politics.
But if they noticed their disagreement with John Paul, the Chalco women did not seem to give it much importance.
“He was valiant and strong,” Maria Concepcion Chavez, 61, said of John Paul. “We want another like him.”
Apr. 10, 2005