MEXICO CITY — After five centuries in which the Roman Catholic Church converted Latin America into the most Catholic region on earth, Pope John Paul II arrives tomorrow for what is being called a "reconquest."
During a five-day visit to Mexico the pope will promote a "new evangelization" not only to discourage Catholics from straying to other folds but also to counter growing secularization.
Explosive growth in evangelical and other faiths confronts the pope with the region's rise in religious diversity along with its rise in political pluralism.
Recently, Juan Sandoval Iiguez, bishop of Guadalajara, predicted Mexico would be 30 percent non-Catholic by 2000, up from 11 percent in the 1990 census. Some sociologists foresee Latin America eventually having a non-Catholic majority. Of even deeper concern for the Vatican leader is loss of religion in the hearts of families across the Americas as secular thinking, individualism, and consumerism spread south, analysts say.
"The pope is coming on a cultural crusade," says Soledad Loaeza, a religion expert at the International Studies Institute of the Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City. "The adversary is no longer the secular state, as it once was, but modern society. The church's task as John Paul sees it is to recuperate that society."
The pope is visiting Mexico - the fourth trip here of his 20-year papacy - to deliver to more than 500 Latin American bishops the conclusions of a November 1997 synod on "America." Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Church have begun discarding differentiating terms like "North" or "Latin" America in favor of one America.
This is just one indication, some observers stress, of how the Vatican's perception of the region has changed since John Paul became the first pope to visit Latin America with his 1979 trip.
"This pope broke with the church's tradition of treating the Americas separately, and has chosen instead to approach it as one America and in terms of its common problems," says Bernardo Barranco, president of the Center for the Study of Religions in Mexico. Some of the worst rich-poor gaps on the planet, immigration, drug trafficking, human rights, "and of course the loss of faith, which has the same effect whether it's in New York, So Paulo or Mexico City," are among the "common" challenges the pope sees, says Mr. Barranco.
The hemisphere holds special importance for the Vatican because of its large number of Catholics and because it includes the world's only superpower and preeminent purveyor of mass international culture, the US.
"The pope knows the future of Catholicism is in America," says Carlos Martnez Garca, a religion expert at the Center for Studies of Protestant Mexico in Mexico City.
Not everyone sees Mexico as playing any special role for the Vatican in this reevangelization of the Americas.
"It's an exaggeration to infer so much importance for Mexico from the pope's visit," says Miguel Canto, a Mexico City sociologist and director of a church-related community services center. "He's coming for an international event [the post-synod conclusions] focused on America."
But others say Mexico does play a special role in the Vatican's strategy - as the second-largest Catholic country in the world after Brazil, and home to 1 in 10 of the world's Catholics. But the pope also sees Mexico as crucial as a "bridge" between Latin America and the US, says Barranco - and as a "dike" or first line of defense against what the pope sees as the US's worst influences.
THE United States "is home to what are now the fastest-growing religions in Latin America," says Barranco, referring to the Jehovah's Witness, Mormon, and Protestant evangelical churches. "At the same time the US is the premier model of a style of life the Vatican opposes," he adds: "individualistic, hedonistic, consumer-oriented."
After the Mexico visit Pope John Paul continues on to St. Louis for a stop in a US toward which the Vatican feels great "ambivalence," says Ms. Loaeza. Much of US mass culture is the antithesis of what the pope will be preaching during his trip, she says. More significant, adds Loaeza, is the growing importance the Vatican places in the role of the US Catholic Church in the Americas.
"The US is one of the few places in the world where Catholicism is growing, thanks largely to immigration, it is a wealthy church, and it is also an increasingly conservative church in the pope's image," she says.
The Colegio de Mexico scholar says the US church could regain the importance it enjoyed in the 1950's - then as a staunch enemy of communism in Latin America - a rise she believes could culminate in the election of an American pope.
Because of this strategic importance of US Catholicism, the pope will not beat American Catholics over the head with his cultural crusade, analysts say.
In Mexico, a tempest is raging over what some observers say are the confusing signals the church is sending by criticizing modern society at the same time it turns to mass marketing to promote the pope's visit. Mexican TV is blanketed with pope ad spots, while Pepsi and the Sabritas potato-chip company are mixing their ads with images of the pope and other religious symbols.
The ad campaign is indicative of how many churches, facing the challenges to spirituality at the end of the 20th century, are experimenting with using mass communications to reach out, analysts here say.
"The risk for the Catholic Church is that the intense publicity campaign turns the pope's visit into something like the World Cup," says Mr. Martinez. "There's an ecstasy of the moment, but then the pope leaves and everyone returns to normal life," he says. "And in Mexico that means many people returning to a daily life where the teachings of the church count for less all the time."