BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: Pope Benedict XVI is back at the Vatican after his visit to Brazil last week (May 9-13). It was his first trip to the Western Hemisphere since becoming pope. While in Brazil, Benedict gave the opening speech at a conference of Catholic bishops from across Latin America and the Caribbean. The bishops are discussing some of the most difficult issues facing the church in their part of the world. Kim Lawton was in Brazil earlier this week.
KIM LAWTON: Pope Benedict XVI calls Latin America a "continent of hope." But during his five-day visit to Brazil last week, he acknowledged that it's also a continent of great social and spiritual challenge. He urged the Catholic Church and its regional leaders to revitalize their faith in order to effectively tackle those challenges.
Bishop WILLIAM SKYLSTAD (President, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops): To make the community of faith lively, to be faithful to the Gospel, to be faithful to our tradition as a Catholic Church, to continue to grow in the knowledge of our Church and our tradition, to address a present reality of a world community that is changing so dramatically and quickly.
LAWTON: One-hundred-and-sixty-two bishops from across Latin America and the Caribbean are meeting in Brazil until the end of the month in order to hammer out pastoral guidelines for the next decade. Benedict opened the gathering by warning that the positive development of society and Catholic identity here are "in jeopardy."
One of the biggest threats may be the dramatic rise of evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity across Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Two-thirds of the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics live here in the Southern Hemisphere, but the numbers have been dropping dramatically. According to a Church-sponsored study, 8,000 Latin Americans leave the Catholic Church every day to become evangelical Protestants.
John Allen of the NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER says this trend is a key priority in the bishops' discussions.
JOHN ALLEN (Vatican Correspondent, NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER): Now, I don't think Benedict XVI or the Catholic Church is looking for a holy war against Pentecostalism. But I do think that these significant losses of their own people have raised some very deep questions about what's happening in the Catholic Church in Latin America and what the Church needs to do to stem the tide.
LAWTON: In Brazil, Benedict raised concerns about what he called the "aggressive proselytism of the sects." The best way to counter that, he said, is a return to the fundamentals of the Catholic faith. Bishop William Skylstad is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a delegate at this meeting.
Bishop SKYLSTAD: I think our primary focus as a Church should be how can we make ourselves better? How can we be more faithful as disciples of the Lord Jesus? That's what's really important. We don't do that by attacking other people or expressing our differences with other people necessarily. It's how we do this ourselves that is faithful to the mission of Jesus.
LAWTON: One major concern is the severe shortage of clergy. Latin America has the highest priest-to-parishioner ratio in the world. In the U.S., for example, the Church says there is roughly one priest for every 1,300 parishioners. In Latin America, the average is about one priest for every 7,000.
Mr. ALLEN: Part of the reason that people have been leaving is because they don't feel that their needs are being met in the Catholic Church, and by needs being met, what I mean is very basic, retail-level, meat-and-potatoes pastoral care. You know, when your spouse gets sick, is the pastor there to sit at your side and hold your hand?
LAWTON: The bishops are discussing ways to increase the number of men going into the priesthood. But they're also talking about ways to empower lay people, a sometimes controversial proposition for a Church that carefully protects the authority of its hierarchy.