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Latin American bishops urge campaign to win back faithful

Roman Catholic bishops in Latin America have ended a two-and-a-half week meeting by calling for a "great continental mission" to win back millions of faithful who have left the church to join the region’s burgeoning neo-Pentecostal movements.

"Our initiative is not proselytising, because we are looking for believers who have been baptised in our own church," said Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the Vatican official who deals with the clergy, at the end of the 13-31 May gathering. "We baptised them but we have not evangelised sufficiently," said Hummes, who was for many years archbishop of Sao Paolo in Brazil before being named to his position in Rome in October 2006.

The fifth such conference of bishops from Latin America and the Caribbean, which met in Aparecida near Sao Paolo and is known by its Spanish acronym CELAM, was opened by Pope Benedict XVI. Earlier, at a meeting with Brazilian bishops, the pontiff had referred to the "the aggressive proselytising of sects", and urged increased efforts to win back Catholics who had "fallen away".

The conference gathered 162 bishops representing the 22 bishops’ conferences in the region that accounts for about 45 percent of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics. But according to unofficial statistics discussed in Aparecida, several hundred million Catholics have left the church during the last two decades.

In Brazil, said Cardinal Hummes at a meeting with the Pope, each year "a million Catholics leave their Church to became neo-Pentecostals." The cardinal said parishes and grassroots communities were being asked to change their way of thinking, "not only to take care of people who usually go to church, but especially those who have left the church".

Priests and lay people are to be asked to make home visits, to listen to people’s concerns, to pray with them and to try and find solutions to their everyday problems.

Such visits have been a characteristic of the new religious movements. In the big cities of Latin America, pastors of these churches visit their faithful once week, something almost impossible for Catholic clergy, because of the size of their parishes.

In this situation, some Catholic groups and theologians think it may be necessary to open the way to older married men to become priests, though this idea did not appear in the final document agreed by the bishops in Aparecida.

Still the bishops reaffirmed their support for the "preferential option for the poor", something seen as a key tenet of liberation theology. In his opening address, Pope Benedict reaffirmed this stance but made no mention of liberation theology, which in the past he has criticised for its links to Marxist thought.

(c) Ecumenical News International