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Pope visits waning Latin American flock

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On his first visit outside Europe, Pope Benedict XVI will open a conference of Latin American bishops from May 13 through May 31 in Aparecida, near São Paulo. He will hold an open-air mass for more than a million in São Paulo Friday and canonize the country's first saint, Antonio de Sant'Anna Galvao, an 18th-century Franciscan monk.

Many people hope his trip energizes the Catholic community of Brazil. "We Brazilians are ecstatic about this visit," said Eduardo Santos, as he left the church at São Bento, which he visits two or three times a week. "He is giving us the drive to overcome our problems, and give new hope to life and Catholicism."

But the hurdles are high. When the late John Paul II made his first trip to Brazil in 1980, 89 percent of Brazilians considered themselves Catholic, according to a national census. By 2000, that number had fallen to 74 percent. At that time, Rome had begun to worry about the number of Latin Americans converting to Protestantism: their numbers soared from just 6.6 percent of the population in 1980 to 15.4 percent 20 years later. The majority have joined Pentecostal churches such as Assemblies of God or the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.

Today, an equally large concern for the Catholic Church is the number of those unaffiliated with any religion: that number jumped from 1.6 percent in 1980 to 7.4 percent in 2000, according to the census.

São Paulo's former archbishop, Claudio Hummes, told reporters the losses are "a hemorrhage, and it's not over."

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