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.