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In Mexico, Church's Influence Wanes as Evangelism Grows

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 5, 2005; Page A01

ZINACANTAN, Mexico -- After Pedro Gonzalez Perez, 38, lost sight in his left eye during a drunken stupor, he said he desperately searched for help, but found none in the town's grand Catholic church.

"It's very difficult to find the Catholic priest to talk to when we have a problem. He only comes to the village every 15 days or so," said Gonzalez, a mason, who then turned to a small but growing Christian evangelical church on the edge of town. There, the pastor, who holds services several times a week, talked to him every day to help him stop drinking, he recalled.

Guadalupe Hernandez and her husband were raised as Roman Catholics but joined a Protestant church in their village because they said it was more relevant to their lives. (Mary Jordan -- The Washington Post)

"I grew up in the Catholic Church but couldn't find solutions to my problems there," said Gonzalez, standing outside his new church, a simple wooden building that is increasingly filled with former Catholics.

The Roman Catholic Church continues to be so influential in Mexico that it rivals the federal government for impact on people's lives, yet in many corners of the country, it is fast losing ground to Protestant churches. As the Catholic hierarchy begins to select a new leader after the death of Pope John Paul II, one of the greatest challenges for the next pope will be how to address the disaffection of Catholics, which has deepened here because of the acute shortage of priests and a sense that the church is too disconnected from people's daily lives.

Mexican theologian Alfonso Vietmeier estimated Protestant groups in Mexico have one minister for every 250 followers, compared with one priest for every 10,000 Catholics. In some places, the priest visits three times a year because he is in charge of as many as 50 villages, Vietmeier said.

That is certainly true in the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas, where there are thousands of small communities tucked into green, foggy hills. Christian evangelical churches in the United States have helped fill the void by sending parishioners here and to neighboring Guatemala in recent years to build new churches and schools. With more and more of these churches springing up, an estimated one in three people in this state of 4 million consider themselves evangelicals. It is part of a trend seen in much of Latin America.

In a country where nearly every town has been centered on a Roman Catholic church since the Spanish conquistadors arrived 500 years ago and imposed Catholicism, the rising number of church defectors is seen as a wake-up call for the Rome-based church to become more available and relevant to people.

"The Catholic Church has had a monopoly for so long it has gotten lazy" in this region, said Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and editor of the Catholic magazine America. Priests cannot just "sit in their churches" but must "go out and listen to people," he said.

John Paul was well known for having a direct connection to poor people, including many in this town of 3,000 who wept for him as they listened to radio reports of his death. Some had gone to the nearby state capital, Tuxtla Gutierrez, when the pope visited in 1990.

But at the same time, some local church leaders note that during John Paul's tenure, his rigid, top-down way of running the church made it harder for them to address local problems. For example, they said, over the years, Catholic leaders in Chiapas have promoted the use of indigenous-speaking deacons, a cleric ranking below a priest, to help minister. But in 2002, Vatican officials sent a letter to Chiapas advising the leaders to stop ordaining deacons during a 5-year evaluation period.

The deacons perform some church services and minister to the sick.

"Their work is very important in terms of reconciling the problems of the communities," said the Rev. Raul Orlando Lomeli, a Chiapas priest. The deacons, he said, are local men steeped in the region's indigenous culture and who speak the native language, which in this town is Tzotzil.

Many here are wondering what the new pope's position on deacons will be and if he will address the shortage of priests by allowing them to marry or permit women to join the priesthood.

Lomeli said there are many expectations: "Some people want lay people to play a more important role, especially women. Some people are questioning whether the celibacy vows should be obligatory and some people would like to see the deacons be promoted more. Some felt that under John Paul II, the policies didn't correspond to the current situation of the church."

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