A priest blesses Catholics during a mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida in Aparecida do Norte, Brazil, on Feb. 16, 2013. Latin America accounts for 40 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. (Paulo Whitaker/Reuters)

After his doctor advised him against making grueling transatlantic trips, Pope Benedict XVI faced a dilemma. If the ailing 85-year-old obeyed the advice, he would have to do the almost unthinkable: avoid World Youth Day, a huge jamboree of the young faithful set to take place this July in the most Catholic country in the world, Brazil.

Latin America accounts for 40 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, and if temporal concerns such as majority voting have any sway over the cardinals’ conclave, the next pope would certainly come from the region. Brazil and Mexico together account for more than 220 million Catholics; Colombia, meanwhile, has about 40 million faithful.

“I know a lot of bishops and cardinals from Latin America who could take responsibility for the universal church,” Archbishop Gerhard Mueller, who holds Benedict’s old post as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said last year.

Kurt Koch, head of the Vatican department for Christian unity, has suggested the same. “It would be good if there were candidates from Africa or South America at the next conclave,” he said, also last year. When asked whether that meant a vote for a non-European over a European, the Swiss cardinal replied at the time, “Yes.”

Certainly, there would be a historical symmetry if Latin America provided the next pope. What began at a small Mass on the island of Hispaniola in 1494, went on to become the church’s greatest evangelizing project. Yet more than 500 years on, Latin America accounts for just 19 of the 118 members of the College of Cardinals who will choose the next pope.

In many ways, Latin America represents a crucible of the challenges that the church faces worldwide, even if it is often imagined from afar as a Catholic “growth market.”

“The church has the same problems here as elsewhere, except with more Catholics and fewer priests,” said James Alison, a noted theologian and author based in Brazil. “The central challenge is how to deal with modern questions in a way that is honest and transparent.”

As elsewhere, secularism is slimming down the ranks. On a recent Sunday in Our Lady of Mercy parish in southern Mexico City, Celia Castro Velazquez, a 76-year-old worshiper, lamented the diminished size of the congregation attending Mass that day and what she called declining moral standards. “Today’s generation goes to football or to wrestling,” she said.

But Castro Velazquez, a lifelong Catholic, also said the institution had not done enough to appeal to younger Mexicans. “The church has got a big problem,” she said. “It doesn’t know how to promote itself.”

Plunging fertility rates, for one thing, suggest that strictures on contraception are rarely observed. In 1960, women in Latin America had almost six children on average; now they have about two.

Catholicism’s spiritual “market share” has always been less strong than it appeared, as it is often mixed with effervescent popular beliefs.

In Mexico, for instance, a cult has grown up around Santa Muerte, or Saint Death. Daniel, who is homeless, visits a Santa Muerte shrine in central Mexico City regularly. Peering through the glass panes that protect a black-robed, life-size skeleton complete with scythe, the 20-year-old says Santa Muerte has watched over him more than any saint from mainstream Catholicism.

“She’s always been there for me,” he said. “She protected me when I was in prison, and she protects me now that I’m walking the streets.”

It is not only in Mexico where this syncretism has taken place: Last year, Benedict timed his trip to Cuba to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the image of the Virgin of Charity, a figure strongly associated in the Afro Caribbean religion Santeria with Ochun, the goddess of love.

More recently, Catholicism has been eroded by evangelists who in the 1980s moved into new slum areas, created by rapid urbanization, that lay outside traditional Catholic parishes.

Although Pentecostalists do not rival the Vatican in the scope of their social work, their charismatic “this world” approach remains popular among believers who seek the fruits of salvation while still alive. Thus in Brazil, where evangelicals make up almost a quarter of believers, one Pentecostal group is spending $200 million to build a replica of Solomon’s Temple in Sao Paulo that will seat 10,000 people and stand 18 stories.

Faced by such challenges, the Catholic Church has recently gone on the offensive, via a new Vatican-sanctioned movement. There are now about 73 million “charismatic Catholics” throughout Latin America, and their services draw on many of the same methods that have made evangelicals so popular.

One such priest is Gleuson Gomes, a soft-spoken 36-year-old in Rio de Janeiro who sings at services, speaks in tongues and whose ministry has rejuvenated a fading parish.

“It was undergoing a difficult time, it had an older priest and needed revitalization,” he said. “That’s why I was sent here by my bishop, because of my charismatic form of ministry.”

One controversial area where the Catholic Church in Latin America has had more success is in gay marriages, although by default. This stems from the church’s ambivalent relationship with the state, as was shown recently by an Argentine court that found the church complicit in some of the crimes committed during the military dictatorship.

“Today, the political apparatus in Latin America tends to assume a far less deferential attitude to the church than many assume,” said Alison, the theologian and author. “It is a very different setup to that in the U.K., where the church is officially part of the state, or the U.S., where religion plays such a central political role.”

One result of this has been the relatively fast spread of gay marriage in a region known for its macho culture. Without the state to act as an accompanying bulwark to ecclesiastical opposition to gay marriage, civil unions are now legal in Argentina, Mexico City and Sao Paulo, and will soon be so in Colombia and the rest of Brazil.

Whether any of these attributes are enough for the cardinals to choose a Latin American pope is another matter. Even some of the leading candidates — such as Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, 63, who heads the 6 million-strong Archdiocese of Sao Paulo — seem unsure.

Taken aback by the scores of cameras and microphones he faced before celebrating Ash Wednesday Mass this month, Scherer gently batted away the assumption that the next pope should come from the developing world.

“The reflections that will be made at the conclave will not be about whether the pope comes from one place or another place, whether he has this origin or that origin,” the cardinal said. More important, he said, will be “whether he has the condition, is the most prepared, to lead the church in this moment of its history.”

— Financial Times