During a press briefing at the Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazon Region, Bishop Carlo Verzeletti of Castanhal, Brazil, deplored the shortage of Catholic priests in the 1,000 villages he oversees near the mouth of the Amazon River.
Bishop Verzeletti spoke of “aging” priests, “running from one place to another,” with little time to offer the “presence and proximity, the support and comfort,” the faithful require.
This long-standing problem, he admitted, has put the local Church at a competitive disadvantage with Pentecostal Protestant sects that have rapidly established vibrant, tight-knit communities across South America.
“Popular piety cannot resist the impact,” said the bishop, noting the presence of 750 Pentecostal churches in his city alone, compared with only 50 Catholic churches.
This imbalance holds true in many towns and cities across the vast Amazon River Basin and helps explain the appeal of a key proposal floated at the synod: the ordination to the priesthood of viri probati (older married men “of proven virtue”) who can celebrate the sacraments and sustain a compelling Catholic presence in areas that may not see a priest for months at a time.
Bishop Verzeletti’s frank comments about the challenge posed by Pentecostal sects drew little attention from media outlets, which have focused on controversial matters at the synod that have more traction in Europe and the U.S.
But Church analysts and scholars who have studied this movement suggest that the rapid growth of Pentecostal communities, which study and proclaim the teachings of the Bible, conduct healing services and inculcate moral virtue, provides further context — and salutary lessons — for a Catholic Church “hemorrhaging” members across the continent.
“With the great exception of the evangelization efforts of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, the Catholic Church in South America lags far behind Pentecostals,” said Andrew Chesnut, who holds the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of World Studies.
Chesnut served as the lead academic consultant for a landmark 2014 Pew survey of the Latin American religious landscape. The study found that one in five Latin Americans across 18 countries and Puerto Rico are Protestants and most identify as Pentecostal.
Cradle Catholics said they had joined Pentecostal communities because they were seeking a more personal connection with God, a different style of worship and a church that offers practical help to its members.
The respondents noted that Pentecostals were more likely to share their faith than Catholics, and many said their new church offered clearer teachings on moral issues.
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