A battle for souls in Latin America

Potosi, Bolivia - As the sole priest in a parish serving 10,000 Catholics, Father Fabio Calizaya is a very busy man. On an ordinary day, he hangs his vestments after a late service at one of two churches and dons a native woven poncho to run from one evening discussion and prayer group to another.

In this southern Bolivian town that was once the largest and richest in all of Latin America thanks to its silver mines, Spanish colonial churches abound, but priests to serve them do not.

''We have 120,000 Catholics in this city, and only 23 priests," said Calizaya, 37. ''It's no wonder some people feel the Church has abandoned them and are going elsewhere" for spiritual guidance.

In El Alto, a hardscrabble migrant settlement above La Paz, Father Jose Fuentes, 44, struggles to serve 80,000 people in Jesus the Worker parish. In the Bolivian countryside, a single priest may minister to 60 or 70 far-flung farming communities and is lucky to visit each once a year.

A scarcity of priests is just one crisis facing the Roman Catholic Church as it seeks to remain relevant to the nearly half a billion Catholics in Latin America -- more than 40 percent of the world's flock. Across a region whose native populations were forcibly converted to Catholicism under colonial rule and where the Church still claims its strongest and most fervent foothold, disillusion and defections are on the rise. From Mexico to Argentina, a single priest is expected to serve between 5,000 and 10,000 Catholics on average, in comparison with one priest per 1,500 congregants in the United States, according to Church statistics.

A number of clerics and lay people are trying to revitalize the Church before it is too late, citing disappointment with the often distant relationship between priest and congregant; the formal Mass structure that allows scant participation; and the perceived failure of the Church to address gaping socioeconomic disparities in Latin America. According to some estimates by Protestant missionaries, the Catholic Church is losing thousands of followers a day in Latin America, where surveys indicate that the ranks of Protestant and evangelical sects have multiplied from 2 million in 1960 to about 50 million today.

The battle over souls is played out every day in parishes such as San Pedro in Potosi, where active, younger, native-born priests such as Calizaya are trying to animate laymen to spread the Gospel, and energize waning congregations by preaching in local dialects and singing hymns with native rhythms. ''Maybe 1,000 of my congregants are active; the rest are Catholics in name only," acknowledged Calizaya, a priest in his hometown for 12 years.

During a recent morning Mass, half the pews in the ornate 422-year-old San Pedro church were filled as about 150 worshipers sang loudly in Quechua, a native Indian language, while a youth plucked a guitar. The rapport between priest and congregation was warm and informal. Sporting indigenous woven trim on his vestments and cowboy boots, Calizaya opened the floor to questions after the homily and gave a lengthy answer to a parishioner's query about workers' rights.

In an interview, the priest said he shared the feeling of many that the Church had failed its indigenous adherents over the centuries by imposing Western traditions rather than valuing native customs, which he and others are now incorporating into religious teachings and informal festivities.

At a recent evening catechism group, Calizaya thanked 40 parents whose children were preparing for their first Communion for coming. ''I realize you're all tired from work, you have to cook dinner, you have to help your children with their schoolwork. But we have to make time for God, too," he said.

After Calizaya left to meet another group, parent Lourdes Lopez, 39, mused that ''not every priest is like Father Fabio; some treat their congregations badly or ignore them entirely. In contrast, local evangelical preachers start with communities of just 20 or 40 people and they can go door to door, help people with their problems, give them Bibles and clothes to win them over."

Although Lopez and other parents said they disapprove of economic incentives to draw poor followers, many said the Church could take a lesson from evangelicals by making services livelier and more participatory. ''The Church should modernize so Masses aren't so boring," said Maria Elena Carachi, 47, ''so . . . it's not just some old priest reciting everything."

In the face of an aging clergy -- many of whom are Europeans -- and a dearth of young seminarians, a major challenge in Latin America is better recruiting and training of home-grown priests, catechists, and lay pastoral agents to evangelize their neighbors and families in ways that one priest serving thousands cannot.

A trend that has alienated many Catholics is a feeling that the Church has not done enough over the past two decades to address the causes of inequality in a region in which the gap between the ruling classes and the poor is among the most extreme in the world.

Amid the eulogizing of Pope John Paul II, it is easy to forget that he had legions of critics in Latin America. Many protest that the late pope's anti-communist fervor bred in Eastern Europe made him suspicious of liberation theology, a movement forged in Latin America in the 1960s by leftist priests who stood up to repressive regimes in the name of human rights, land reform, and economic justice, but were accused by establishment opponents of having links to guerrilla groups.

After his ascension in 1978, the pope dismissed liberation theology as Marxism, silencing some priests, prompting dozens to leave the clergy in protest, and appointing numerous conservatives to the regional hierarchy.

Many liberal Catholic activists came to view the Church as allied with the interests of the ruling class. Although virtually any Bolivian priest will say he sees Christianity as a path of liberation for the oppressed, most shrink from being associated with a movement that drew ire from the Vatican, making social activism a delicate proposition.

''There's a paradox in Latin America: The majority of the population is Catholic, but we have many social and political structures that aren't Christian. Look at all the corruption and mistreatment of workers," said Archbishop Edmundo Abastoflor of La Paz, Bolivia's capital.

''The Church and lay Catholics must take a more active role in society to shape the social, economic, and political life of our nations with Christian principles of fairness and justice," he said.

Eldy Solis, 29, a systems analyst who was among about 1,000 mourners at a Mass in the pope's honor Friday night in the La Paz cathedral, described the problem more starkly: ''People are going to other churches because of poverty. I don't think the sects can do any better, but they are giving people hope. The Catholic Church must invest more in the poor, in creating jobs and evangelizing the poor, who are the majority in Latin America, before it loses them."