For centuries, to be Latino was to be Catholic. By early next century, however, fully one third of Latin Americans may be Protestant. The continent is converting more rapidly than Central Europe did in the 16th century, says Msgr. Boaventura Kloppenburg, a Brazilian bishop.
But the Protestant explosion in Latin America is not just about numbers. It is also about the transformation of an entire culture.
Young people sitting in the crammed public buses pore over their Bibles (Latin Catholics keep their Bibles at home); whole families flock to former movie theaters and storefront churches peppering the cityscape, not for mass but el culto; people bow their heads before a meal; families split over religious differences; Peru's new president gets elected with the help of the very people who are threatening the traditional way of life.
''What are they doing to our culture?'' many Catholics cry out.
The deeper question is why is this reformation happening. A survey of expert opinion on the phenomenon highlights several factors:
* A continent in turmoil: Cholera, terrorism and hunger haunt Latin America. In Peru, where the minimum wage is $50 a month, the poor believe that the power structure -- which includes the government and the Roman Catholic Church -- has failed them, making it necessary to seek stability and answers elsewhere.
Pentecostals ''offer a diagnosis,'' the Brazilian sociologist Ricardo Mariano told a Wall Street Journal interviewer, ''that demons are at work, that Jesus cures, that Jesus can resolve problems in your family and bring you financial prosperity if you give donations.'' Across the continent, Pentecostals account for some 70 percent of all Protestant conversions.
Another source of appeal is the rigorous ordering of work and family life engendered by calls to sobriety, thrift and regularity. For the poor especially, this helps fend off chaos, says David Martin, author of ''Tongues of Fire.'' Even critics, such as Ivo Paseta, a Lima lawyer, admit that evangelical churches fill a need that people have to ''belong and be told they are somebody. Right now only the Boy Scouts are offering something comparable.''
* Failures of the Catholic Church: Alienated from a distant, bureaucratic and hierarchical church, many converts find a refreshing intimacy in evangelical circles. Partly to compete, the charismatic and liberation-theology movements within the Catholic Church proclaim the virtues of small groups, Bible study and accessible worship. Yet the middle-class, intellectual nature liberation theology -- as well as its call to el pueblo to oppose injustice, which many correctly saw as suicidal -- has had less appeal than the Pentecostals' exuberant worship services and promises of healing, says David Stoll, author of ''Is Latin America Protestant?''
* Empowering churches: For men, the opportunities to lead in evangelical churches come quickly and with few formal requirements. This stands in sharp contrast to the arduous and expensive journey to qualify for leadership in the Catholic Church. Though women are excluded from leadership circles, they also gain some sense of empowerment and they actively participate in Bible studies and in ''taming in their men the abuse of drink and the cult of machismo,'' writes the Jesuit priest John Coleman.
* The power of the Holy Spirit: As the media and academics grope for sociological or political explanations, the church recognizes the hand of God in mass repentance, in receptivity to the proclamation of the gospel -- and in supernatural activity.
El Puente, an interdenominational newspaper in Buenos Aires, reports with quotes from doctors on healings and miraculous pregnancies. Stories circulate of encounters between the evangelists Omar Cabrera and Carlos Annacondia and evil spiritual forces. The evangelists' integrity and thriving ministries give credence to many of the accounts. Also the Pentecostal focus on spiritual warfare fits right in with the Latin American tradition of curanderos and shamans, some of whom are also converting.
* Celebration and meaning: Latins love a good party, and the Pentecostals throw some great ones. As Nilza Costa, a Pentecostal chambermaid in Rio, told a reporter for Time, ''I am happiest when I am in church praying, singing, surrounded by the love of Jesus.'' This spirit of fiesta is so strong in the churches that Rio's Carnival organizers recently confessed they were worried it might spoil theirs.
* An escape from suffering: The relevance of the evangelical version of Christ's message is striking a chord even among those who have hated the Church.
Jose Gavino, a psychologist and lifelong Marxist labor activist in Lima, lately has been undergoing a spiritual revolution: ''I grew up with visions of el Cristo doliente, the suffering Christ, but now I am realizing that he is el Cristo vivente, the living Christ.'' He adds: ''I used to get nauseous seeing people take Holy Communion and then leave the church heavy laden with their heads hanging down. Now I see it doesn't have to be that way.''
Andres Tapia, a Peruvian-born journalist, wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.