Pope on the ropes: Why Pentecostals are taking over Latin America
As the pope held mass in Panama City, many far more lively services were taking place in the poorer suburbs
Panama rolled out the red carpet for Pope Francis for World Youth Day celebrations, but here and across Latin America the Catholic Church is losing ground to a growing evangelical movement.
In the gritty barrio of El Chorrillo, 1km of dense streets from where Francis celebrated mass at the city’s 400-year-old cathedral on Saturday, evangelical churches are holding sway in a pitched battle for the souls of Panamanians, particularly the poor.
“Without wanting to criticise the Catholics, the evangelical church is more united with the people, with the young who are here in the neighbourhood,” said evangelical preacher Juan Manuel. “Because we deal with them, we walk with them, we live in the same buildings with them,” he said.
Roberto Rodriguez, 20, was a practising Catholic until a couple of years ago, but says he only really felt connected when he joined the local evangelical church. “I was lost,” he says. “Now that I am in the evangelical church I feel the glory of God. I feel the options that God has given me, really the grace of God.”
Filling the void
Apart from occasional police patrols, there are few signs of government presence in El Chorrillo. Locals say churches fill the void in a barrio of broken families, school dropouts and gang violence. The vast majority of evangelicals in Panama and across Latin American are Pentecostals, a charismatic branch of Protestantism born in the US at the beginning of the 20th century.
In a rubbish-strewn alley, Yamilka Carrion runs the Valle de Beraca church on the ground floor of a run-down building. It is one of six Pentecostal prayer rooms or soup kitchens located within 200m of El Chorrillo’s Our Lady of Fatima Catholic church. “It’s pure misery, a lot of young people are in danger,” said Carrion, a 39-year-old preacher and business graduate.
“But we are here.”
More than half of the 440 murders committed in 2018 were of people under the age of 30, statistics show.
The small evangelical communities have based their success on a simple but effective tactic: preachers go door to door, rather than passively waiting for people to come to church. “You have to go through the alleys, the stairs of buildings, knock on the doors of houses,” said pastor Dalia Viveros. “The young person needs to feel you are interested in him.”
Neighbours say evangelicals have been growing in number here over the past 15 years. Official figures show they now account for 19% of Panama’s four million population. “It’s real competition for the Catholic Church,” said Claire Nevache in a report for Panama’s Centre for Democratic Initiatives (CIDEM), which promotes democracy and respect for human rights.
Local Catholic priest Jonathan Vasquez however said that Francis’s five-day visit to Panama “has given an impulse” to the Catholic Church. “We are renewing ourselves, we are becoming more and more faithful to the message of Jesus Christ,” he said.
Pentecostals differ from Catholics because they don’t pray to saints, recognise the pope, or acknowledge the pre-eminent role of the Virgin Mary. The Holy Spirit is the focal point of their spiritual life. Pentecostal services are so animated compared with Catholic mass – sometimes even including exorcisms – that Francis once likened them to “glorified Samba schools”.
Later, with a few neighbours, Rodriguez joined a prayer service led by three local preachers in a modest flat. “Give me an amen!” said the preacher, Juan Manuel, a tall and thin man who said he had been “reformed” after spending 28 of his 50 years in prison. Rodriguez belted out an “amen!” with a shudder.
‘Bridges, not walls’
The pope said in 2018 that Catholics could learn from how Pentecostals “live their faith, give praise to God and witness to the gospel of charity” at a meeting with the Vatican council for Promoting Christian Unity.
Shortly after he became pope in 2013, Francis said the evangelical churches “build bridges that lead unbelievers into the church, not walls to keep them out”.
The Catholic Church has been forced to adopt some Pentecostalist practices in its masses in Latin America, said Andrew Chesnut, a religion expert at the University of Virginia. “Pentecostalism has had such great success in Latin America since the 1970s that Christianity in the region has ‘Pentecostalised’, with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, the church’s own brand of Pentecostal-style worship, the leading form of Catholicism across the region,” he said.
Vasquez, the young Catholic priest, acknowledged that the evangelicals have gained ground. “Where there is poverty, where people are marginalised, evangelical churches offer a faith in an exuberant, cathartic God,” he said. He also admitted that the battle for souls in El Chorrillo is spiced by “a little hostility”. There is “tension, confrontation to find out who, Bible in hand, is right, holds the truth”.
But Vasquez says he is rising to the challenge. When he arrived only four young people went to mass in his parish. Now, he says, there are 33.