DALLAS—Every hour, 400 Latin Americans leave the Catholic Church to join Protestant denominations, Evangelical Christians boast. Mary Wilson wants to change all that.

Wilson is executive director of New Evangelization of the Americas 2000, a group which brings bishops and laity together to address needs like the ones she saw in the village of San Luis Potosi.

Wilson went door-to-door in the Mexican jungle village inviting former Catholics back to the faith and encouraging practicing Catholics to deepen their devotion to the Mother of God.

She recalled one new Protestant she met, a one-time Catholic woman who had abandoned the Catholic Church a year and a half earlier to join a new, nondenominational Protestant group in her village. Her son, a member of the Legion of Mary, was at a loss to bring her back and had asked other Legion volunteers to visit her.

“Why did you leave the Church?” Wilson asked. She was taken aback by the woman's response.

The woman had helped many ill or needy people in her parish community, she said, but when she was in dire need, no one had come to help her. No one had even checked to see if she needed food. This hurt her deeply, and when the new, community-oriented sect came into the village, she was among the first to join.

Sept. 19 is Catechetical Sunday

No one had even checked to see if she needed food. This hurt her deeply, and when the new, community-oriented sect came into the village, she was among the first to join.

The Legion of Mary volunteers made a great impact on this woman when they mentioned that Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Eucharist were only present in the Catholic Church. But even so her return journey back to the Catholic faith has only just begun.

“Her story was typical of stories encountered by other Legion of Mary volunteers throughout Latin America,” said Wilson. “There is a deep need to restore a sense of community among the faithful.”

An Enormous Exodus

There are countless stories like hers. In 1996, the evangelical magazine Charisma and Christian Life reported, “During the last decade, the population of Latin American Protestants grew from 18.6 million to 59.4 million. That represents a 220% increase; nine times the growth rate of the general population.”

This leaves the mission for bishops and laity clear, said Msgr. Francis Oliverio, coordinator for Evangelization for the Archdiocese of New York.

“Simply put,” he said, “we need to stop the bleeding and bring back those who have left.”

In his January apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America (The Church in America), Pope John Paul II underscored the critical need for renewed evangelization efforts in Latin America, the United States and Canada, writing:

“The proselytizing activity of the sects and new religious groups in many parts of America is a grave hindrance to the work of evangelization. … No one can deny the urgency of prompt evangelizing efforts aimed at those segments of the People of God most exposed to proselytism by the sects” (No. 73).

This post-synodal document came on the heels of the Synod for the Americas which addressed vital issues of the faith facing Latin and North America. Especially in Latin America, bishops have stepped up efforts to address the problem regionally as well as nationally.

Bishop Charles V. Grahmann of Dallas last year helped start NEA 2000.

New York Archbishop Cardinal John O'Connor serves as honorary chairman of NEA 2000's episcopal advisory board. Other members include Bishop Jorge Enrique Jiménez Carvahal, president of the Latin American bishops' council; Archbishop Estanislao Karlic of Parana, president of the Argentine Episcopal Conference; and Cardinal Norberto Rivera, archbishop of Mexico City.

“What we're trying to do is to carry out the plans of the Pope as outlined in Ecclesia in America,” explained NEA 2000's Mary Wilson.

Sharing Solutions

Wilson is coordinating the final details of a major conference, the organization's second, slated for Oct. 11–15 in Mexico City. In addition to anticipated laity and diocesan administrators, the conference is expected to draw more than 60 bishops, primarily from Latin America.

“This effort takes prayer as much as funding,” said Wilson. “We have asked people throughout North and Latin America to pray 10 Memorares a day through Oct. 15 for the success of this meeting. We are also in the throes of raising $100,000 to pull together the logistical details of the conference, including modest airfares and expenses for those bishops who could not otherwise afford to attend.”

Wilson further explained that the bishops plan to build on the success of NEA 2000's first conference, which resulted in an expansive plan of action.

The focus of this year's conference is on the Marian aspects of evangelization.

Last year, in their Reflections and Pastoral Proposals, participating bishops identified external and internal causes contributing to the Latin American exodus of the faithful, and proposed various solutions.

Their diagnosis pointed to a crisis of culture, which included a propensity toward ease and a focus centered on man rather than God, a crisis of traditional structures and institutions, Marxism, violence, neoliberalism, consumerism, religious indifference, unchecked urbanization, economic crisis, unemployment, political corruption, drug addiction and New Age philosophies that “search for ways to avoid the real feelings of life.” The bishops also noted a crisis in education, the invasive proselytization of sects, deficient religious formation, and a lack of formation in apologetics.

Their proposed answers to these problems are ambitious.

They include an increased and more efficient use of media to communicate the truths of the faith; intensified apologetics and religious education formation at all levels for the faithful — from seminaries to pastors to laity; heightened attention to those who are marginalized by society; increased eucharistic and Marian devotions to foster a more profound inner prayer life in the faithful; and an attentive, welcoming spirit to those who are searching for deeper understanding of the faith or who are considering returning to it.

Solutions that Work

Already, NEA 2000 has had an effect in increasing evangelization efforts in Latin America. At its Dallas meeting, bishops learned of a group which develops powerful apologetics programs in Spanish. They then invited the group Apostoles de la Palabra (Apostles of the Word) into their dioceses during this past year.

Martin Zavala, a member of the group, wrote to thank NEA 2000 for the new doors which opened in their efforts to reach fallen away Latin American Catholics. He wrote, “We have excellent news on the increased promotion of apologetics in Latin America, which was one of the conclusions reached at the Dallas conference.”

Pax Net and Radio Maria, two farreaching Latin American radio networks, invited the group to do programs on the defense of the faith — programs which now reach 13 countries.

“Another fruit of the Dallas meeting is that many bishops have invited us to several countries to give talks on apologetics,” said Zavala.

Msgr. Oliverio added, “The mission of the Church is to embrace and bring the living Gospel to all — if they're leaving, they won't hear it! It's the joy of my heart to know that our laity have come forward and committed themselves to such a noble and ambitious concern as NEA 2000. It's magnificent.”

Karen Walker writes from San Juan Capistrano, California.

For more information about NEA 2000, call Mary Wilson at (214) 236- 3299.