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Latin American Catholic Bishops Vow to Stem Exodus to Evangelical Churches

( [email protected] ) May 31, 2007 11:34 AM EDT

APARECIDA, Brazil (AP) - Roman Catholic bishops from Mexico to Chile pledged Wednesday to reach out to the faithful in a bid to stem the exodus in Latin America to evangelical churches, a main theme of Pope Benedict XVI's recent visit to the region.

Closing a three-week meeting of Latin American bishops, Catholic leaders said their biggest mission is to hold on to church members as droves leave to become evangelical Protestants.

Church leaders and priests need to "get up and go out, and not wait around in their parishes" for the faithful to come to them, said Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy and Sao Paulo's former archbishop.

Hummes said the church will not engage in a war of faith or get involved in conflicts with Protestant congregations, but will embark on a "continentwide, great evangelical mission" to reach out to the faithful, especially in the sprawling slums of Latin America's cities where Protestants have been particularly effective in attracting converts.

The bishops, however, did not give specifics on how they would go about reinvigorating the church. They prepared a 200-page report summing up their findings, and its contents will be disclosed only after it is reviewed by Benedict, probably in June.

Benedict opened the bishops' meeting on May 13 at the tail end of a five-day visit to Brazil, the world's largest Roman Catholic country.

The pope acknowledged that the church, still the dominant faith in the region, is rapidly losing ground to evangelical Protestant churches who have been successful at attracting poor Latin Americans to their ranks in recent decades.

He also urged bishops to mold a new generation of leaders, saying Latin America needs more dedicated Catholics at high levels in government, the media and at universities.

Nearly half the world's 1 billion Catholics live in Latin America, but Pentecostal churches are enjoying explosive growth, promising divine intervention to lift parishioners from lives of misery in a region where the divide between rich and poor is among the worst on the planet.

Brazil's census shows the percentage of citizens characterizing themselves as Catholics plunged from 89 percent in 1980 to 74 percent in 2000, while those calling themselves evangelical Protestants rose from 7 percent to 15 percent.

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