WHEN a visit by Pope Francis to Chile was announced last June, the country’s devout Catholics no doubt hoped it would help bring lapsed ones back to the fold. But as Chileans await his arrival on January 15th for a three-day visit, followed by two days in Peru, the preparations have highlighted the increasing irrelevance of the Catholic church to many Chileans. Half of Chileans regard the visit as of little importance and a large majority disapprove of the government contributing 7bn pesos ($11m) towards security and logistics. “The money should be spent on the poor, above all on health,” fumes Sonia Meza, an evangelical who works as a maid, from La Florida, a suburb of Santiago.

The lack of enthusiasm contrasts with the ecstatic reception of John Paul II in 1987, during the 17-year dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Then, more than three-quarters of Chileans were Catholic. The church was respected for its staunch defence of human rights and the visit was used to rally opposition to Pinochet. A hymn written by locals for the occasion, “Messenger of life, pilgrim of peace”, followed John Paul wherever he went.

Over the three intervening decades, trust in the Catholic church has declined dramatically, according to surveys by Latinobarómetro, a pollster (see chart). Less than half of Chileans now call themselves Catholics, a figure that will shock many. An annual survey by the Catholic University’s Centre for Public Policy, which uses a slightly different methodology, comes up with a figure of close to 60% and shows Catholicism falling more slowly.

The Catholic church has been losing adherents across Latin America. But in other countries people are shifting mainly to evangelical churches. The same trend is visible among poorer and less educated Chileans. What marks Chile out is the behaviour of its richer and better-educated youngsters. Elsewhere in the region, they are staying with Catholicism; in Chile they are abandoning faith altogether. “There is an advanced and fairly rapid process of secularisation” in Chile, says Ignacio Irarrázaval of the Centre for Public Policy.

In part this is because Chile is the region’s richest country, and its most open economy. That has facilitated the spread of social trends from outside Latin America. It is also because of revelations about the sexual abuse of children by priests. The Latinobarómetro poll suggests that criminal cases filed against Fernando Karadima, the priest in charge of El Bosque, an upmarket parish in Santiago, triggered an exodus from the church. They came to public notice in 2010. Father Karadima had close connections to Chile’s elite, raising suspicions that powerful patrons had allowed him to act with impunity for many years. Francis’s appointment of Juan Barros, an associate of the disgraced priest, as bishop of the diocese of Osorno was seen by many Chileans as a disastrous mistake.

Trust in the Catholic church is now lower in Chile than in any other Latin American country, says Marta Lagos of Latinobarómetro. And the share of Chileans who say they have no religious belief is similar to that in Uruguay, which has a longer history of secularisation.

The church is also increasingly out of step with Chileans on matters of sexual morality. It campaigned against divorce, which became legal in 2004, and against last year’s relaxation of the strict abortion law. Church leaders seem more concerned by such matters than by injustice and inequality, says Fernando Montes, a Jesuit priest and former rector of Alberto Hurtado University in Santiago.

Some Catholics hope that young people will find Francis’s environmentalism, modest lifestyle and open manner attractive. His agenda emphasises matters of social justice. It includes a visit to a women’s prison, a meeting with a group of Mapuche, Chile’s most numerous indigenous people, and a celebration of immigrants.

No one doubts that hundreds of thousands will flock to see him. Three giant masses are planned, in Santiago, Temuco in the south and Iquique in the north. Hotels in Temuco expect hordes of Argentines to cross the border to see the first Argentine pope; Peruvians will swell the congregation in Iquique. Chileans who stay at home will be able to watch the pope’s progress around the clock. That does not mean they will follow him back to church.