In Mexico, Roman Catholic Church's Influence Wanes as Evangelicalism 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.
"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."
Guadalupe Hernandez, wife of the injured mason Gonzalez, was also raised Catholic and attended the church in the town square, with its vaulted ceilings and ornate altar decorated with candles and fresh carnations.
Even after she saw how the new evangelical church had helped her husband, she said, she did not want to leave the Catholic church that was so familiar. Besides, some relatives were upset that her husband had left the church of their ancestors.
But now, she also attends the little wooden church. On Sunday, she entered her new church, pulled the blue and green shawl that she had embroidered over her head and prayed, searching for a rare moment of solitude after caring for her two youngest daughters, ages 3 and 4.
Hernandez, who lives in a one-room shack with a concrete floor and an open fireplace for a stove, said she had nothing negative to say about the Catholic Church. Rather, she said, she found more help in her new church when she became violently ill three months ago. She said it was an evangelical pastor who came to stay with her until her stomach pains passed.
Mariano de la Cruz Gonzalez is one of the two pastors who administer to the 100 people in Gonzalez's Protestant congregation, Church of Christ. He said the church is winning over Catholics because it offers a more direct connection to people and a more relevant message tailored to their needs. In this village, that message is: The drinking must stop!
Though Zinacantan is known to outsiders mostly for its colorful embroidered shawls, those who live here say the town is largely defined by what it lacks: jobs and a way out of poverty. Many idle men spend much of the day drinking; on a recent morning, a middle-aged man stumbled around near the town square, a bottle of the clear "firewater" clenched in his hand.
De la Cruz does not have the long years of formal education that Roman Catholic priests do. But he lives with his wife in the community and speaks Tzotzil. And Gonzalez said the important thing for him is that "I can go to his house whenever I want to. I can talk to him whenever I need to."
In Gonzalez's new church this past Sunday, most of the people in its pews were former Catholics. At San Lorenzo, the grand Catholic church on the town square, there was no Mass on Sunday. The priest was conducting services elsewhere.
Researcher Bart Beeson contributed to this report.