Catholicism is deeply embedded in Latin American culture. A quick look at city or street names, or at holidays in the calendar would show how openly religious Latin American culture is in many aspects, and how different it is from the sharp division between private faith and the secular public square in the United States.

Nevertheless, rank-and-file Catholics in the greater Latin American cities would not hesitate to say that trying to bring Christ's presence to daily urban life is not much different or less challenging than it seems to be in the United States. In other words, making faith present in the public arena is as hard in Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires or Caracas, as it can be in New York or Los Angeles.

According to Pedro Morande, a sociologist who is vice rector of the Chilean Catholic University, the task is even harder if we realize that there is always the temptation to confuse a “virtual” Catholic presence with the real thing.

Morande, one of the most brilliant Catholic intellectuals in Latin America, who describes himself as “a parent of two trying to raise Catholic children in Santiago,” has always insisted on distinguishing the “virtual” from the “real” Catholic presence in the public square.

Morande says many people believe the Catholic Church is present when it is only virtually present. They think the Church is advancing because bishops, or even Catholic lay leaders, appear frequently in mass media, speaking about social or political issues. Or they think it is enough that Catholics are shown as “model citizens” backing trendy, plausible initiatives — like a Peruvian bishop who recently promoted the planting of 15,000 trees in his diocese.

Don't get Morande wrong. He is not against bishops going public on TV, or against planting trees. He just points out that real Catholic presence is achieved only when Christian values, the values preached by Jesus Christ, find a place in social organization, in the economy, in legislation, in family life.

It is important to understand that when Church leaders appear on TV or are quoted in the media that does not mean the Gospel is being more accepted in society. In my experience, there are many more bishops appearing on TV on this side of the continent than in North America. But at the same time I see respect for Christian values fading in almost all areas of public life. TV broadcasters do not respect Good Friday in their programming. Abortion is being proposed by a greater number of politicians. Such things would never have occurred when I was a boy.

But the challenge is not to get back to a nostalgic Catholicism. In Ecclesia in America (“The Church in America”), Pope John Paul II asks Catholics in the continent to bring a Christian presence into the society and culture of the new millennium, not to reproduce the past in today's world.

The Pope also makes another point: Despite the fact that the Church is always the same and that the bishops bear ever-greater responsibilities, still, in today's world marked by an increasing secularism, the role of the layperson is unique and his contribution to the new evangelization irreplaceable.

Of course, Jesus himself demonstrated that the advance of the Gospel is not necessarily tied to the world's enthusiastic acceptance of Christian values. “The equation that associates success with acceptance is a secular, not a Christian one,” Morande says. In fact, success for Christians can come with a great deal of rejection. Which does not mean that rejection, as such, has to be looked for. On the contrary, pastoral creativity can make Christian practices not only more understandable, but attractive alternatives to an ever-increasing void.

Argentinean Bishop Bernardo Witte recently gave an example of such pastoral creativity when he called Catholics in the city of Concepcion — one of the areas most affected by Argentina's economic recession — to fast on bread and water each Friday to pray for employment and social justice. “In the face of our dramatic social reality, a journey of prayer and penance, of reflection and sacrifice is needed as an expression of solidarity with the needy,” the bishop said.

“Spiritually, it must be taken as a moment of conversion and prayer; socially, it must become an expression of solidarity with our workers — especially with farmers, workers, and administrative personnel of the sugar industry,” he added. “Our sacrifice and prayers must be raised up to increase the good and decrease the evil.”

Bishop Witte also asked Catholics to put together the food saved in each home during the days of fasting and to give it to a needy family. “In this way, we will share with others the same generosity God has shown to us and will make a symbolic gesture of our willingness to achieve a more just, balanced society and to work for the globalization of solidarity.”

The reaction to Bishop Witte's call was surprisingly positive. He showed how a true Christian life of prayer, testimony and even fasting, can be deeply embedded in society and culture if it is interwoven with daily life.

Alejandro Bermudez writes from Lima, Peru.