As the papal helicopter left the Vatican as Pope Benedict XVI’s tenure came to an end Thursday, the chattering heads on the news channels focused on the sex scandals as a challenge for the next pope. Sex sells, clearly, but chatterers are missing a huge (not sexy) story: the growth of Protestantism in South America.
That’s why Pope Benedict went to Brazil in 2007 -- one of only two trips that year.
On Thursday, a priest interviewed said that the next pope must push to get the “new evangelism” going, partly as an effort to stem the tide in South America. And that got me thinking that, actually, the next pope should drop the “new evangelism” brand.
It seems Catholics have been through one form or another of this new evangelism for years. New pope, new name, makes sense. But to counter the priest’s advice for the new pope, here’s another option: see what the competition is doing.
Just this past Christmas, Christian evangelist Franklin Graham’s organization, Operation Christmas Child, delivered 9 million shoeboxes of gifts to children throughout the developing world. Nine thousand of those boxes came from my home county, New Castle County, Del., which is far away from the Bible Belt. (In my neighborhood, the largest church on the highway is Unitarian.)
What’s in the boxes? Mostly dollar store stuff -- pencils, paper, toothpaste, toothbrushes, little toy cars, puzzles, etc. Individuals purchase the gifts and pack the shoeboxes. Certain churches act as delivery points, loading the shoeboxes into larger containers that are transported by truck.
If you go to Graham’s website, you’ll see that the shoeboxes are distributed with the help of local evangelical churches in the receiving country, but no child needs to be a church member. Some simple religious instructional material is offered voluntarily, but the child need not take it to receive a shoebox. The booklet isn’t packed in the box.
This last Christmas was particularly special for the shoebox operation; 2012 marked the distribution of the 100 millionth shoebox since the program began in 1993.
What should get the next pope’s attention is that many of these shoeboxes have gone to Latin America and South America. While many children don’t take the religious material, some do. And some of them become interested in evangelical Christianity, and you can guess the rest.
I hope and pray the next pope will have the courage and humility to look around the world and see what his fellow Christians in other denominations are doing.
Joanne Butler is a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a former professional Republican staff member at the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee.