Catching the Spirit: The New Pope, Pentecostalism and the Global South

A Catholic nun sings as people gather outside the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, March 13, 201
A Catholic nun sings as people gather outside the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, March 13, 2013. Latin Americans reacted with joy on Wednesday at news that the Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope. Bergoglio, who chose the name Pope Francis, is the first pope ever from the Americas. (AP Photo/Ivan Fernandez)

Superstar personalities are no small part of the supernova of Christian growth in the past century: the Pentecostal and charismatic renewal movements.

In the U.S., think of Oral Roberts or Bishop T.D. Jakes.

So it is with a sense of anticipation that many Catholics, who experienced the megastar papacy of John Paul II, are hopeful that their new pope, the church's first spiritual leader from Latin America and a devoted advocate for the poor, can find an evangelist-in-chief to compete in the global marketplace.

The selection Wednesday of the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, ignited international interest in the billion-member institution, where more than half of the world's Catholics now reside in Latin america or Africa. The choice of Pope Francis, some observers say, is not only a significant affirmation of the global nature of the church, but could help stem defections to Pentecostal congregations in those southern regions.

But what may matter more than the new pope's nationality, according to some scholars, is his commitment to allowing the growth of lay leadership and culturally sensitive worship that is at the heart of the success of the Pentecostal movement.

"A new pope would do well to officially sanction some of this, rather than resist it," said Donald Miller, the series editor of "Global Pentecostalism and Charismatic Christianity" and the executive director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California.

Dynamic Marketplace

The Pentecostal-charismatic movement emphasizes enthusiastic worship and the ability of individuals to discern God's will through a personal connection with the Holy Spirit. The connection can manifest itself in New Testament practices such as healing prayer.

The movement began humbly with the teachings of Charles Fox Parham in Topeka, Kan., in the beginning of the 20th century, followed in a few years by the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles. But in the past century, Pentecostal-charismatic movements grew at nearly four times the rate of both Christianity and the global population, expanding from 1.2 million in 1910 to 584 million in 2010, according to the World Christian Database.

The movements are multifaceted, ranging from traditional Pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God and the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel to independent churches to charismatic movements within older denominations, including the Catholic Church. There were an estimated 177 million Catholic charismatics in 2010, according to the World Christian Database.

To be sure, the Catholic Church, despite losses in much of Europe, is still experiencing dramatic global growth, particularly in Latin America and Africa. From 1990 to 2000, the Catholic Church added an average of nearly 13 million members a year, and by some estimates it is expected to grow to more than 1.5 billion members by the middle of the century, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

But this is a slower rate than the growth of renewalist movements, which are expected by some to go from a quarter to a third of the world's Christian population as the Catholic Church holds on to about half of Christianity.

From 1990 to 2000, for example, the Catholic Church lost an estimated 355,000 adherents a year after adding up converts to and from the church. In contrast, Pentecostal-charismatic churches gained 2.8 million adherents a year through conversions, according to the World Christian Database.

In Brazil, which has the world's largest Catholic population, thousands of Catholics move into evangelical Protestant churches every week, said Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity.

An Uncertain Future

Catholics have considerable strengths -- from a strong tradition and presence in many nations to well-organized networks of schools, hospitals and seminaries. And the church in Latin America and Africa has been in many ways supportive of charismatic practices within worship.

But a hierarchical church with a priest shortage also faces significant challenges competing with Pentecostal and charismatic movements led by local leaders who provide an environment that is sometimes compared to a large extended family, observers say.

Pentecostalism can bring order, stability and hope, particularly for individuals living in poverty or who are part of an urban migration cut off from their rural roots, Miller and Tetsunao Yamamori note in their book "Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement." The emphasis on the value of personal spiritual experiences and what generally are the greater opportunities to serve than in a Catholic church also develop commitment and a sense of self-worth.

Pope Francis may want to consider the importance of increasingly legitimizing the role of all people in the congregation, promoting practices such as healing prayer and integrating culturally meaningful music and forms of worship within congregations, scholars say.

Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, said the training of local Catholics is critical both to evangelization and to address concerns that worship not veer from church teaching into areas such as advocating a prosperity gospel equating faith with health and wealth.

The Catholic Church's "hope of spreading is through the development of lay leadership," he said.

Miller agrees.

"There's no way the ratio of priests to people can ever start to accommodate the needs of people" in the same way house fellowships and cell churches are able to in their intimate settings, he said.

The religious community needs to be more rooted in the actual experiences of the people, "which is of course the major insight of Pentecostalism," Miller added.

Of course, it also does not hurt to have a pope from Argentina, particularly if Francis could combine the compelling spirituality of Pope John Paul II with the special inspiration he brought to many from his native Poland and throughout Eastern Europe.

Many Latin American Catholics consider themselves "the soul of Catholicism," and the election of a pope from the region would be seen as "a very powerful symbolic statement that they're accepted and they're recognized," said Arlene Sanchez-Walsh, an associate professor of Latino church studies at Azusa Pacific University.

In a world with tens of thousands of Christian denominations, the media advantages of having one spiritual leader for half of the Christians on the globe are enormous. No one gets more face time on any media.

After nearly eight years of what many observers have characterized as a "caretaker" papacy, the actions of Pope Francis will have far-reaching consequences for Christianity's most dynamic landscape -- the Global South.

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.