Church is waning in Pope's Argentinian homeland

It's the boisterous Pentecostals who are enjoying a boom in Latin America

Buenos Aires

When Jorge Bergoglio is formally installed as Pope Francis at the Vatican on Tuesday, thousands of his fellow Argentines will have risen before dawn to watch the ceremony on giant television screens installed around this city's most famous national monument, the obelisk in the Plaza de la Republica. Well hundreds, anyway.

The choice of Cardinal Bergoglio may be an acknowledgement that Latin America is home to 40 per cent of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. Yet even here the church is not as hearty as it might look. Secularism is on the rise but something else has been luring customers away: the Pentecostals who are as boisterous in worship as the Catholics are demure.

Nowhere has the Pentecostal movement, a form of evangelical Protestantism, grown faster than in Brazil, notably among the poor. Visit the favelas, or slums, of Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo, and the ramshackle churches holding daily services with charismatic sermons and stirring song are usually Pentecostal. In 1970, 92 per cent of Brazilians identified themselves as Catholic. In the latest national census in 2010, the figure had dropped to 65 per cent.

The Church of Rome in Argentina is also in retreat. Veronica Gimenez Belivau, a professor and theology researcher at the University of Buenos Aires, calculates that while 76 per cent of Argentines call themselves Catholic today, only about 10 per cent are practising. She believes that 9 per cent of the country's population is now Protestant. Of those the vast majority are Pentecostals. Government figures show that 90 per cent of all the new churches established from 2008 to 2011 were evangelical; they were opening at the rate of one a day.

"I think the evangelical faith has grown in Argentina and Latin America because of the feeling of family and community it gives followers, something missing in the Catholic church," Juan Pablo Bongarra, 66, president of the Argentine Bible Society and pastor in the Open Door Church in Buenos Aires, said. "The church has also had a strong presence in poor neighbourhoods where it is normal to find evangelical priests living in slums and being part of poor people's lives there."

Sometimes, the Catholic-Protestant divide happens within families. Alberto Velasquez, 55, who lives in a shanty town by the tracks leading to the main Retiro train station here, goes several times a week to his Pentecostal church in the business district of the city while his wife, Maria, attends the tiny Church of the Virgin of Rosario in the slum. "We agree on everything, except for religion," Maria acknowledged last week. "We can't even talk about it."

But even the Pentecostal churches here are not immune to the forces of secularism. "The part of the population that is growing even faster than the Pentecostals are the group that we can call the non-believers," Professor Gimenez said yesterday. "In Argentina, 11 per cent of the people have no religion at all."

If Cardinal Bergoglio was chosen in the hope that a Latin American pope would restore the sapped strength of the Catholic church here, Professor Gimenez is not sure it will help. "It will invigorate the group that is involved in the church already. The core of Catholic activists, including young people, will get a boost and a new sense of legitimacy. But for the rest of the Catholics it will not mean a lot of change."

Mr Bongarra of the Bible Society says that as well as promising miracles, such as curing illness, Pentecostal preachers step in to help with marital problems, drug addiction or depression. If one person turns around their life after visiting the church, he says, a whole family is then tempted to convert from Catholicism. Argentina's most famous evangelical priest, Carlos Annacondia – based in Quilmes, greater Buenos Aires – has been preaching to thousands and travelling the world for the last three decades.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
News
people
News
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want for the fitness tech, or the style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own