New York Times
April 5, 2005
LAGOS, Nigeria, April 4 - In the modest sanctuary of the Church of the Assumption here, there is no glint of stained glass, just cheap frosted louvers to let the breeze in. The Stations of the Cross are not painted by the hand of a Renaissance master. They are rendered in simple wood carvings hung on the wall.
Yet it is here, not in the sumptuous cathedrals of Europe, that the future of the Roman Catholic faith lies, said the Rev. Francis Anyanwu, pastor at the church.
"Here in Africa the church is growing, vibrant, alive," Father Anyanwu said as he waited to deliver the benediction after two hours of prayer on Friday night for Pope John Paul II as he lay on his deathbed. "By the grace of God our flock is strong."
As the conclave of cardinals assembles to choose a successor to the pope, the strength of the Roman Catholic Church in Africa, Latin America and other developing lands, where two-thirds of Catholics now live, is sure to be a factor in those deliberations.
Though only a third of the cardinal electors are from developing countries, representatives from Latin America will outnumber those from Italy. Several Latin American cardinals have been mentioned as possible successors to John Paul II, and a Nigerian cardinal, Francis Arinze, is frequently cited as a papal candidate.
"Why not an African pope?" the Rev. Julius Olaitan, administrator of Holy Cross Cathedral in Lagos, said after a dawn Mass on Saturday. "We have played second fiddle for so long, but now the church has found its roots in Africa."
The feeling for a pope from the developing world may be even more pronounced in Latin America, which has the highest concentration of Roman Catholics in the world.
Some feel that a leader like Cardinal Cláudio Hummes of São Paulo, Brazil, also mentioned as a possible successor, could revitalize a church that has been steadily losing ground to Pentecostalism and other evangelical sects that particularly since the 1990's have taken the developing world by storm. "Aside from being a great honor, it would really be advantageous to have someone who truly speaks our language and comes out of a Latin American experience," Marcelo Lisboa, a 65-year-old retiree, said Sunday morning after Mass in
"I think it would draw people back into the church," he said, "because even though Latin America has so many Catholics, most people don't go to Mass, and it would certainly help brake the advance of all these evangelical sects."
Pentecostalism has made great gains in Africa, too, but the competition here is frequently for millions of souls who are up for grabs and arrive at Christianity from animist and other traditional faiths, though it bumps up against Islam, too.
The Catholic Church in Africa has in fact enjoyed its fair share of the religious fervor that has swept Africa in the last century, a spiritual frenzy that saw the percentage of Africans practicing Christianity soar to nearly half of the continent's 900 million inhabitants, from just 9 percent.
Today the Catholic Church in Africa claims nearly 150 million adherents, 20 million in Nigeria alone, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass.
Yet in Africa and Latin America alike, the Catholic Church also faces steep challenges, primarily from the Pentecostal wave that has drawn millions with its energetic, all-night-revival style of worship and its promises of material as well as spiritual riches, especially among the deeply impoverished.
Once an active force in the lives of many poor people in Latin America when the liberation theology movement dominated in the 1970's and 1980's, the church under Pope John Paul II became an increasingly conservative force and, in the view of some, less involved in the everyday concerns of the poor.
In Africa the church occasionally found itself compromised in the continent's complicated and bloody wars. In Rwanda, priests and nuns were accused and in some cases convicted of aiding the Hutu perpetuators of the genocide against the minority Tutsi in 1994.
But those challenges pale in comparison with the decades of stagnation and declining church attendance in Europe and the United States, and many see the future of the church as lying in the developing world.
In many developed nations, including deeply Catholic ones like Ireland, the pope's firm stands against divorce, abortion, homosexuality and birth control have to some extent alienated populations whose views on such issues have loosened.
But particularly in Africa, where the church is looking to grow and families have been devastated by AIDS, it is precisely those conservative doctrines that endeared the pope to a new generation of Catholics.
"The Holy Father has stood up for traditional values, and those are the same as African values," said Marie Fatayi-Williams, who came to pray for the pope at the Church of the Assumption on Friday night. "We believe in family, in life, in the sanctity of marriage. There is no controversy about such things here."
Indeed, if his conservative message grated on the ears of the European and American faithful, the pope also preached eloquently about the dignity of suffering and the value of each human life, a message that seemed to answer Africa's needs in a tumultuous quarter-century of unceasing war, cycles of famine and death and the devastation of AIDS.
In upholding conservative values, his teachings fit neatly into the deeply held traditional mores that dominate most African societies. He visited Africa again and again, drawing huge, adoring crowds. Even among non-Catholics he was beloved.
"On a continent where suffering is a fact of daily life, he is an inspiration and a guide," said Henry Akinwunmiho, 50, an elementary school teacher who arrived at the Holy Cross Cathedral in Lagos on Saturday before dawn to pray for the pope.
At the parish, Father Olaitan said that just as a Polish pope was the right man to meet the great political shift of the last generation, the end of the cold war, an African or Latin American pope could be just what the church needed to secure its future in the new millennium.
"Pope John Paul II knew what an evil Communism was, and he helped stamp it out in this world," Father Olaitan said. "It could be that a pope from Africa or Latin America could stamp out our generation's evils - extreme poverty, ethnic strife and disease - and transform Africa just as the Holy Father transformed the rest of the world."
John Paul's conservative message also transformed the church in Latin America, even as its position eroded with the growth of boisterous new Protestant churches whose unmediated style of worship - employing healings, speaking in tongues and casting out demons - and use of television drew millions of believers.
No country has a larger Catholic population than Brazil, for instance, and at the start of John Paul II's papacy more than 90 percent of Brazilians considered themselves Catholic. By the time of the last census in 2000, just under three-quarters of Brazil's 180 million people declared themselves so, while Brazil's Protestant population quadrupled.
More than 25 million Brazilians now belong to evangelical and Pentecostal churches, leading some Protestant pastors to predict that the country will have a Protestant majority within 25 years.
"I don't know if Brazil can continue to be as Catholic a country as it has traditionally been," said Waldo César, a Brazilian sociologist of religion who is a Lutheran. "There is still a lot of room for Protestantism to grow. Poverty and internal migration are not slowing, and they feed this phenomenon."
Across the rest of Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina, much the same thing is happening. Even fervent Catholics acknowledge that the church has been slow to respond to the challenge, something that leaders in Rome may now seek more aggressively to reverse.
It will not be easy. The Roman Catholic Church today finds itself hamstrung by a shortage of clergy that seems to be grow each year.
Vocations among young Brazilians are not enough to make up the gap. Fewer Europeans and Americans, a big source of priests in the past, are available, with the result that many communities in the arid backlands and the Amazon see a priest only every couple of months or so.
Belatedly, after years in which John Paul centralized authority in Rome, the Catholic Church in Latin America has responded with a movement known as charismatic renewal, which has used rock-style hymns and borrowed Pentecostal thunder by incorporating Bible readings and even speaking in tongues.
"Our liturgy is expansive and creative, foreseeing a high degree of popular participation," said the Rev. Pedro Félix Bassini, director of pastoral outreach for Brazil's National Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops. "There are certain norms and basic principles, but we are not saying that you have to be this or that. We're leaving it up to each bishop to provide an orientation."
In other dioceses, bishops have sought ways to reach an accommodation with Candomblé and Macumba, Afro-Brazilian cults that are similar to voodoo and Santería and have millions of followers.
At the start of John Paul II's papacy, the church had similarly been trying to adjust to changing social and political conditions in Latin America with liberation theology.
Drawing freely on Marxism for its "preferential option for the poor," the movement aimed at involving priests more in the daily concerns of parishioners and transforming what were seen as unjust structures that perpetuated inequality and poverty.
But with his experience living under a Marxist-Leninist government, John Paul II quickly showed himself to be skeptical of the approach and doubtful of its doctrinal foundations. In an emblematic moment during a Central America trip in the 1980's, he wagged his finger in admonition at priests in Nicaragua who had aligned themselves with the Sandinista revolution. All over Latin America, when bishops sympathetic to liberation theology retired they were replaced by priests who were not.
Today the cardinal of Lima, Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne, 61, is a member of the ultraconservative Opus Dei movement who believes that the church needs to confine itself to a more narrow, traditional role. He was appointed to his post by John Paul II in 2001 with an eye on what kind of legacy the pope would leave.
Lydia Polgreen reported from Lagos for this article, and Larry Rohter from Rio de Janeiro.