By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - A ghost will be following Pope Benedict at every step of his trip to Mexico and Cuba -- that of his predecessor John Paul.
John Paul, who died in 2005, was a huge draw in many places. But, apart from his native Poland, nowhere was he a more towering figure than in Latin America, visiting every one of the region's countries at least once.
He drew oceanic, throbbing crowds, sloshed through swampy slums in Ecuador, challenged Maoist guerrillas in the Peruvian highlands and defended miners' rights in Bolivia.
The more cerebral, sedate and shy Benedict, who enters the eighth year of his papacy in April, is making only his second trip to Latin America and his first to the Spanish-speaking part. He visited Brazil in 2007.
John Paul, underscoring the importance of overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Latin America for the Church's future, chose Mexico as the first place to go just months after his election in 1978.
He made one trip to Latin America nearly every year of his 27-year papacy, the last when he was 82 and in failing health. Of the 22 trips Benedict has made since his election in 2005, 15 of them have been in Europe.
Opinion polls show that a majority of people in Mexico and Cuba, reflecting the mood throughout Latin America, feel more affection and veneration for John Paul than for Benedict, who they believe understands them and their culture less.
The difference in pre-trip enthusiasm is so palpable that Bishop Jose Guadalupe Martin Rabago of Leon, the Mexican city where Benedict will be based, felt impelled to admonish his flock to stop making comparisons with John Paul.
"From the perspective of faith, all popes are equal and deserve our respect and our loyalty regardless of the charisma they have," he told CNNMexico.
"We need to say this to everyone so they don't expect to see in Pope Benedict a repeat, or, to put it bluntly, a clone of Pope John Paul".
While the Vatican stresses that the papacy cannot be seen as a popularity contest, from a statistical point of view John Paul clearly spread his attention more evenly around the globe, lavishing much of his time and attention on Latin America and the developing world in general.
Benedict, by contrast, is seen as Euro-centric.
"Benedict has always been concerned about the decline of Christianity in Europe," said Father Tom Reese, a Jesuit who is a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington.
"His fears are relativism, consumerism, and secularism, which are less of a problem in Latin America. He has been going to the places he understands and Europe has lots and lot of problems. There are people who think Christianity is going to be a minority religion in Europe pretty soon," Reese said.
MANY CATHOLICS, FEW CARDINALS
This fear for Europe's future, some believe, may explain Benedict's choice of new cardinals last month. Europeans account for 12 of the 18 new "cardinal electors" under 80 years old and thus eligible to enter a conclave to elect the next pope.
Even though Latin American countries are all majority Catholic and the region has nearly half of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, Latin America has only 22 cardinal electors, compared to 67 for Europe, meaning there is a greater chance that the next pope will be a European.
By some estimates, more than one in 10 of the world's Catholics are Mexican or of Mexican origin. Mexico has four cardinals, compared to 52 for Italy, which has far fewer Catholics.
Some worry that what appears to be the Vatican's diminished concern for Latin America comes at a time when Catholicism there is under growing pressure from Protestant sects who are offering a more lively brand of home-brewed religion.
"The problem is that the Catholic Church in Latin America is like the old IBM, a lazy monopoly. Everyone had to come to it for sacraments and salvation," said Reese.
The Catholic Church is losing millions of Latin Americans to protestant branches such as Evangelicals and Pentecostals, which are seen as more charismatic and give more personal attention than the highly structured Catholic Church.
"These Evangelicals are the Silicon Valley start-ups of Christianity. They are running circles around us because they are entrepreneurial, they're creative, they try things. And we're stuck in the mud doing the same old thing again and again and it's not working," said Reese, who has written numerous books about the Church and the Vatican.
While John Paul was more open to liturgical experimentation in the developing world, such as the wearing of multi-colored vestments inspired by traditional cultures, Benedict is much more of a conservative who sees Europe as the traditional mother Church and the developing world as its children.
During his trip to Brazil in 2007, Benedict called the defections to the protestant Churches worrying and said the Catholic Church had to become "more dynamic in offering answers to this thirst for God".
The Vatican says many factors come into play in deciding where the pope travels, including his age. Church officials say the fact that this is only his second trip to Latin America does not mean that he loves the region any less.
Benedict was elected when he was 78 and is now 84. Pope John Paul, by contrast, was elected when he was 58 but made his last trip to Latin America, his 19th to the region, when he was 82.
The Vatican says Leon, in conservative Guanajuato state, was chosen as the venue for the Mexico trip because the high elevation of the capital, Mexico City, could be risky for his health.
Last year Benedict began using a mobile platform instead of walking up the main aisle of St Peter's Basilica. The Vatican says this is to conserve his strength.
He is scheduled to rest for about 24 hours after his arrival in Mexico to get over the jet lag.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Jon Boyle)