Day Four: Facing dramatic losses, Benedict says: "It's worth it to stay Catholic!"

Aparecida, Brazil — Delivering his most direct appeal yet to Latin Americans not to desert the Catholic church, Benedict visited the largest Marian sanctuary in the southern hemisphere tonight and thundered, “The church is our home! This is our home!”

Almost imploring his audience, Benedict said, “In the church, we find everything that’s good, everything that brings us security and relief! Whoever accepts Christ as ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’ in his totality, is assured of peace and happiness, in this life and the next! For this reason, the pope has come here to pray and to confess with all of you: It’s worth it to remain faithful, it’s worth it to persevere in the faith!”

Those exclamation points, by the way, are all in the original.

Though Benedict did not make the point, the context to his appeal is the dramatic defection away from the Catholic church across Latin America in recent decades, generally to one of two options: the burgeoning Pentecostal and Evangelical movements that dot the continent, or to a lack of religious faith altogether.

The break-up of Catholicism’s 500-year religious monopoly in Latin American has been remarkably swift.

Belgian Passionist Fr. Franz Damen, a veteran staffer for the Bolivian bishops, found that the number of conversions from Catholicism to Protestantism in Latin America during the 20th century actually surpassed the Protestant Reformation in Europe in the 16th century. In 1930, Protestants amounted to one percent of the Latin American population; today it’s between 12 and 15 percent. A study commissioned in the late 1990s by CELAM found that 8,000 Latin Americans were deserting the Catholic Church for Evangelical Protestantism every day.

Meanwhile, some religious sociologists say that the growth in the number of Latin Americans without any religious affiliation is, if anything, even more dramatic. Fr. Jose Oscar Beozzo, for example, told NCR that from 1980 to 2000, the percentage of Brazilians who say they have no religious affiliation went from 0.7 percent to 7.3 percent, a ten-fold increase.

Most of that increase, Beozzo said, has been among the poor of Brazil’s new urban peripheries, meaning that for the first time, a lack of religious faith has become a “mass phenomenon” in the country.

Aware of those trends, Benedict addressed Latin Americans directly, telling them he is aware they have a “great thirst for God,” and assuring them that their desires can be satisfied within the Catholic church. The pope called for a “new Pentecost” in the region.

At the same time, Benedict said that simply wearing the Catholic label is not enough.

“Coherence in the faith requires a solid doctrinal and spiritual formation, contributing to building a more just, more human and more Christian society,” he said. “The Catechism of the Catholic Church, also in its abbreviated version published under the title of the Compendium will be of help in developing a clear understanding of our faith.”

Benedict’s remarks came after praying the rosary with bishops, priests and religious of Brazil, along with delegates to the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean. The service took place in the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Aparecida, the largest Marian shrine in Latin America, and for that matter, anywhere outside of Europe.

The word “Aparecida” means “she who appeared,” and it refers to the tradition that a statue of Mary without its head was discovered in a river by some local fishermen in 1717. Later, the fishermen found the head, and began to bring in huge numbers of fish. Devotion to the statue spread along with stories of miracles attributed to its intercession. In 1929, Our Lady of Aparecida was declared the Patroness of Brazil.

Among other things, Benedict advised his audience to “remain in the school of Mary.”

Thanking the Brazilians for their warm welcome, Benedict said that his predecessor, John Paul II, “mentioned many times your kindness and your fraternal welcome. He was absolutely right!”

Benedict went on to thank priests, deacons and seminarians for their service to the church. As he has on other occasions during the Brazil trip, Benedict made a special point of singling out members of religious communities for praise.

“You, men and women religious, are an offering, a gift, a divine blessing that the church has received from its Lord,” the pope said. “I thank God for your live and for the testimony that you give to the world of a faithful love of God and to others. This love without reserve – total, definitive, without conditions, and passionate – manifests itself in silence, in contemplation, in prayer, and in the most varied activities that you perform, in your religious families, in favor of all humanity, especially the poor and abandoned.”

The gesture carries special significance, given that under John Paul II many members of religious communities felt neglected by the Vatican in favor of new lay movements such as the Focolare, the Neocatechumenate, Sant’Egidio, and Communion and Liberation. While Benedict XVI has endorsed the growth of lay movements and associations while in Brazil, they have not received the sustain attention the pope has devoted to religious orders in his prepared texts.

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