A few days after Pope Benedict stepped down, an article came across my Inbox: Mexican Catholics Blame Themselves for Pope’s Resignation.
For a second, I thought it had been created by the humoristic newspaper The Onion, but it was a real article by ABC/Univision.
According to the article, Mexicans felt that they didn’t do enough to embrace the German Pope. Their indifference, Mexicans felt, may have been part of the reason why he decided to step down.
Well, that definitely won’t be the case with Francisco.
Hispanic Catholics are ecstatic about the new Pope. Not only is he the first Latin American to hold the Papacy, but it came as a surprise. A Pope from Latin America was a very remote possibility… until it happened.
The universal reactions in person, Facebook and Twitter was one of sheer joy: “At last, our Pope!”
A Pope perfectly targeted to the most critical market for the Catholic Church. What a brilliant marketing move.
Latin America has the largest concentration of Catholics in the world. Not only a third of the World’s Christians live in the region, but the penetration of Catholicism is among the highest – 80% of Latin Americans claim to be Catholic. That compares with around 24% of the US population.
But besides the numbers, the Catholic Church is a very big deal in Latin America. It has gravitas.
In a poll conducted in the region, Latins named the Catholic Church as the most trustworthy institution with about 80% approval. The military and television had about 50%, the government and the police each had 40%.
Being Catholic is the “default” in the region. People don’t “become” Catholic, they just are. This makes it harder to switch to other denominations.
To use an example from the marketing world, is just like the electricity providers in deregulated markets. Most people simply keep the one provider that “came” with their home. It’s dramatically easier for incumbents to keep their customers than for challengers to steal customers away.
However, there are two factors eroding the Church’s market.
First, there’s a critical shortage of priests. Or, in marketing terms, they have customer service problems.
While Europe has 1 priest for every 1,500 Catholics, in South America the ratio is 1 for every 7,100. Of course, this means longer wait times if you wanted to interact directly with priest. And if your Church is not there for you when you need it, you may look elsewhere.
In contrasts, availability is a key competitive advantage for other churches. While there is a lot of training required to become a Catholic priest, there are lower barriers of entry to become a non-Catholic minister. In essence, anyone can start a Christian church.
This, combined with more aggressive efforts for “customer” acquisition, help explain the very fast growth of alternative Churches in Latin America.
Predictably, when people switch away from the Catholic Church, they develop strong loyalties for their new-found denomination. After parishioners leave, it’s very rare that they come back.
So, when your most critical customers are leaving, what do you do? Take action. And that’s the brilliance of the new Pope. A Pope who speaks Spanish, rides the bus and loves soccer (in the photo above, Francisco is holding a banner from his favorite team, the San Lorenzo Saints).
A Pontiff attuned to the needs, hopes and dreams of Latin Catholics.
Having a Latin Pope will re-energize the Church. He will get people excited about the Church again. The influence of the new Pope will certainly increase the number of young men interested in Seminary, which will eventually solve the Priest shortage.
Additionally, a Pope from the Third World will find it easier to connect with people from the less privileged regions in the world… which are the markets where the Catholic Church is strong and growing.
So, if the Church was a business, it would not have been able to pick a better CEO. From the marketing and strategy point of view, the new Pope is exactly what the Church needed.
But, you see, the Church is the Church. So, I’m not really surprised that the choice is so perfect.
In Romans 11:33 the apostle Paul wrote “Oh how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways!”
However, when it came to reaching to Hispanics, his decisions and his ways were very clear. Long live el Papa.
Sources: 2012 Annuario Pontificio, CIA World Book, Catholic Almanac, Latinobarómetro