WASHINGTON — With the election of Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the first Latin-American Vicar of Christ in the history of the Catholic Church, the College of Cardinals confirmed an inescapable truth: The pilgrim Church has traveled far beyond its base in the Eternal City.

Pope Francis himself alluded to this significant reality in his first public words as Pope, spoken March 13 from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica.

“Dear brothers and sisters, good evening,” Francis began. “You know that the duty of the conclave was to give Rome a bishop. It seems that my brother cardinals picked him from almost the ends of the earth. But here we are!”

Latin America represents 40% of the world’s Catholics, and many immigrants from the region have put down roots in the United States, spurring the growth of Catholicism in a nation where the Church’s numbers might otherwise be dwindling, since one out of every 10 adults is a former Catholic.

The election of Pope Francis follows the pontificates of two non-Italian popes, Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and the news confirms the shifting center of gravity in a Church that has experienced growth in Africa, Asia and Latin America, even as Europe pulls away from its Christian moorings.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia welcomed the landmark papal election. Pope Francis, said Archbishop Chaput, “comes from the new heartland of the global Church.”

Indeed, back in 1999, John Paul II drew attention to the emergence of “two quite different situations” in this Catholic New World heartland. In his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America, he outlined the trends: “on the one hand, the situation of countries strongly affected by secularization and, on the other, the situation of countries where there are still many vital traditions of piety and popular forms of Christian religiosity.”

“There is no doubt that, in varying degrees, both these situations are present in different countries or, better perhaps, in different groups within the various countries of the American continent,” wrote Blessed John Paul II.


Argentinian Experiences

As the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Cardinal Bergoglio experienced both “situations” firsthand.

He has strengthened pastoral outreach while battling legislation to legalize same-sex “marriage” and liberalize abortion laws.  He has gone toe-to-toe with the nation’s authoritarian President Cristina Kirchner.  

Pope Francis is also known in his homeland for encouraging the tradition of piety. In a Vatican Radio interview following the papal election, Brother Ricardo Saenz, an Argentinian seminarian studying in Rome, recalled how the former cardinal shared in his flock’s strong public devotion to the Blessed Virgin.

“Each year, we always have a walking pilgrimage which [the former cardinal] always precedes,” Brother Ricardo said. “The whole Diocese of Buenos Aires walks until [they get to] the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lujàn [in Buenos Aires Province] … 12 hours of walking. It’s full of young people, who walk all day, all night, and he always wants to celebrate that Mass. He always goes back to Lujàn to the sanctuary.”

That background will help guide Pope Francis’ plans for advancing the New Evangelization in the Church in Latin America and in the U.S., where Catholic leaders seek to revitalize ethnic strongholds while drawing Hispanics into the Catholic mainstream.


Catholic Population Shifts

A  new study released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life suggests that the new Pope will have his work cut out for him.

While the Pew study reported that Catholics’ share of the world’s population has changed very little over the past century — 17% in 1910 to 16% in 2010 — “What changed substantially … is the geographic distribution of the world’s Catholics,” stated the study’s authors.

“In 1910, Europe was home to about two-thirds of all Catholics, and nearly nine-in-10 lived either in Europe (65%) or Latin America (24%). By 2010, by contrast, only about a quarter of all Catholics (24%) were in Europe,” the study reported.

Today, 39% of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics reside in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the study, and Catholics comprise about 50% of the global Christian population.

The study documents the striking expansion of the Church in sub-Saharan Africa, with an estimated 171 million believers, compared with 1 million Catholics in 1910. In Asia, the faithful number about 131 million, compared with just 14 million in 1910, and they now represent 12% of the continent’s population, up from 5%.

Such countries are marked by harsh material poverty and glaring social inequities between rich and poor. Thus the promotion of Catholic social teaching and the evangelical witness of charity will be priorities for Pope Francis, whose service to the needy began with his personal care for a member of his household in Buenos Aires.

The new Pope also must reassess the Holy See’s efforts to protect and advance the growth of Christianity in China, where it must deal with the government-controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association that operates alongside an “underground” Church whose bishops are in full communion with Rome, and in African nations like Nigeria, where Christian churches are routinely burned to the ground by Muslim fundamentalists and where the faith can be blurred by syncretistic practices that incorporate animist beliefs.

“Today, religious persecution against Christians occurs in the Muslim world and the communist world,” said Nina Shea, who directs the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

But Shea also noted that the growth of faith under such circumstances could inspire Catholics in parts of the world where apathy is prevalent.

“In Nigeria, the fact that people are willing to stand up for their faith and go to church, despite repeated bombings, gets other people’s attention and has led to more conversions.”


The U.S. Picture

The Pew study reported that Catholicism in the U.S. and Canada is not growing as robustly as in many areas of the developing world.

 “North America’s share of the global Catholic population has increased more slowly, from about 15 million (5%) in 1910 to 89 million (8%) as of 2010,” stated the report.

The study’s authors point to two separate, but related, developments inhibiting Church growth here: declining population growth in Western countries; and the changing dynamics of religious belief, with some cradle Catholics rejecting the faith entirely and others switching denominations.

The latter trend is also evident even in Latin-American countries that are overwhelmingly Catholic. Over the past decade, Brazil and Mexico — the two countries with the largest populations of Catholics, with 126 million and 96 million respectively — both experienced a significant drop in the number of self-identified Catholics.

Latin-American Church leaders often blame aggressive Protestant sects as the primary cause of declining numbers, but Pope Francis is expected to focus his energies instead on improving Catholic evangelization.

In a March 14 report for National Review, papal biographer and commentator George Weigel recalled a conversation he had with the cardinal last year about “the importance of the Latin American bishops’ 2007 'Aparecida Document,' the fruit of the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean.”

Weigel cited one relevant passage from the document that reflected the tenor of the cardinal’s perspective: “The Church is called to a deep and profound rethinking of its mission. ... It cannot retreat in response to those who see only confusion, dangers and threats. ... What is required is confirming, renewing and revitalizing the newness of the Gospel ... out of a personal and community encounter with Jesus Christ that raises up disciples and missionaries.”

For their part, the U.S. bishops do not complain of “sheep stealing” by Protestant sects in this country, but, the 2013 Pew study confirmed that “the Catholic population has lost more members than it has gained from religious switching.”


A Latinizing Church

Meanwhile, reflecting an historic pattern, the Church in the U.S. “has been heavily shaped by immigration and includes a rising share of Latinos,” the Pew study noted. “More than half (52%) of all migrants to the United States are Catholic.

“Of the estimated 75.4 million Catholics in the United States in 2010, 22.2 million were born outside the United States (30%). By comparison, slightly more than 13% of the overall U.S. population is foreign-born.”

The Pew study confirmed that 76% of Catholic immigrants are from Latin America. The election of Pope Francis will have special relevance for them, offering a potent new opportunity to advance the New Evangelization by bridging two cultures and continents and yielding perhaps a new Catholic moment in the United States.

Last year, during a Vatican conference marking the 15th anniversary of Blessed John Paul’s apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America, Pope Benedict XVI said that the faithful in the Western Hemisphere must “devote ourselves without reserve to proclaiming” Christ “throughout the Americas.” In the months and years ahead, that urgent task will now be taken up by a native son, Pope Francis.

Joan Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.