SAN TOMÁS AJUSCO, MEXICO — Jean Pierre Bandoweshe, a youthful pastor born in Africa's Congo, gently sways as he sings along with his Mexican congregation, towering over parishioners during communion. His delivers his sermon in Spanish, with a thick Congolese accent.
"He's a long way from home, no?" says María de la Luz Camacho, a lifelong Catholic. "Sometimes I don't understand what he's saying. But we are all of the church and accept him as a representative of God."
Like most people in this rural village on the outskirts of Mexico City, Ms. Camacho says that this is her first contact with a foreign-born Roman Catholic priest, much less an African. But with Catholicism losing ground in Mexico to evangelical and Protestant churches, and with a deepening priest shortage, pastors from Africa and Asia are increasingly filling the void.
They bring with them vibrant styles and street savvy, honed in their native countries where, because Catholicism was just one of many theological options, adherents had to be earned. With their house visits and sidewalk sermons, and a focus on the poor and the sick, they are infusing their ministries with a full measure of evangelism.
"They can help to offer a flavor of Catholicism from their homelands that is perhaps more spontaneous and alive," says Bernardo Barranco, head of Mexico City's Center for Religious Studies. "It might clash with some formal Mexican ways, but could be very positive in the end."
Priest-thirsty Mexico could use the extra hand. Currently about 14,000 priests in Mexico attend to a Catholic population numbering 90 million. That means one priest for every 6,400 Catholics, compared with the worldwide average of one priest for every 2,800 Catholics, according to the Mexican Bishops' Conference.
Elio Masferrer, head of Mexico City's Latin American Association for the Study of Religion, says that a more vibrant style of worship could help the Catholic Church compete with evangelical churches, which are seen as more charismatic, tuned into local culture, and open to putting worshippers on a fast track to priesthood. The Center for Religious Studies estimates that some Protestant churches in Mexico have one minister for every 250 worshippers.
Mr. Barranco adds that African and Asian priests in Mexico tend to be in their 30s or 40s, below the Mexican priest's average age of 60.
On a recent day, Hilario Niri, a Catholic priest from the Indonesian island of Flores, strolls a busy avenue in Ixtapalapa, one of Mexico City's roughest areas. At 34, looking hip in an orange jersey and baggy pants, he mixes naturally with streetside vendors, shaking hands with teens and young mothers.
"I hang out with the kids in the neighborhood, ride my bike to different temples, visit people in their homes," says Mr. Niri. "You have to be more hands-on if you're going to connect with a young man to the point where he'll say, 'Hey, I want to be a priest, too.' "
Niri and his colleagues, including the Rev. Augustín Sony Wangge, also from Indonesia, now hold a monthly mass in the street to reach young people. They go door to door, letting people know about the service. "This is what we do in Indonesia, so why not do the same here," says Mr. Wangge.
"We must make the church more engaging and relevant," says Niri, who studied with the Society of the Divine Word, a steadily growing international congregation. A total of 700 students currently study at the seminary in Flores, Indonesia. Compare that to 550 students at Mexico's largest seminary in Guadalajara, which is seeing a steady drop-off in enrollment, according to Mr. Masferrer.
Niri gets sentimental thinking about Catholic mass in Indonesia. "People dance down the aisles with the priest at the beginning and end of mass," he says. "You've got drums and clapping. It's a lot more participatory."
Bandoweshe adds that he would also like to "see more singing and movement around here and less dozing off."
But don't expect drastic changes yet. "Foreign priests hope to share the vitality of the church they find in their homeland, but they must also know the limits of authority," says Mary Gautier, a researcher with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington.
Wangge stresses that he does not wish to stray from official Catholicism. "I respect the new pope, the liturgy," he says. "But I also live with the people here and know their reality. If people are straying from the Catholic church, then we need to examine why."
One way they are trying to fight the dwindling numbers is by bringing a more personal touch. If someone has AIDS, says Wangge, he will give him a hug. He makes home visits to those who can't get to mass and has created outreach programs for the poor and single mothers. Bandoweshe says the concept of meeting the needs of the people has been lost amid traditions that often have very little to do with the church's primary mission.
"More cash goes to fireworks, big musical bands, and weeklong festivals than to helping the poor," he says. "That's something I'd like to reverse."
Bandoweshe came to Mexico three years ago. In Congo, his church served refugees, mostly from wars in Sudan and Uganda. "You risked your life working there, trying to help and shelter people," he says. In 1995 Bandoweshe, openly critical of the then-ruling Mobutu Sese Seko dictatorship, faced near-certain death when soldiers burst into his parish and fired shots. A bullet skimmed the back of his head, leaving a scar. After stints in Italy and again in the Congo, Bandoweshe was eventually sent to Mexico.
"The signal we're getting from the bishops here is to strengthen the faith," he says. Still, he is prepared to move slowly. "I am not bent on startling people," he says. "I know I'm a newcomer."