May 31, 2013


How the worldwide Church is changing

For the Catholic Church, it appears that it was a good thing indeed that Christopher Columbus discovered the New World back in 1492. Today, almost half of the Catholics in the world live in the Americas.

The Statistical Yearbook of the Church, published by the Vatican and released on May 13, showed that Catholics in the Americas made up 48.8 percent of the total number of Catholics in the Church. The statistics are for the year that ended on Dec. 31, 2011.

These statistics show how the worldwide Church is changing. Perhaps statistics are boring to read, but they’re important for Pope Francis, bishops and all others responsible for leading the Church.

Catholics in Europe, where they comprised the vast majority in Columbus’ day—although there was no statistical yearbook then—now are only 23.5 percent. Meanwhile, the number of Catholics in Africa and Asia is growing quickly. Africa now has 16 percent and Asia 10.9 percent. Oceania has only 0.8 percent.

Overall, at the end of 2011 there were 1.214 billion Catholics in the world, an increase of 18 million from the previous year. That’s about 17.5 percent of the global population.

The bad news in all of this is that the growth of the Church in the United States and Europe is only even with population growth. To reach that 48.8 percentage, we had to add the figures for North America to those of Latin America. North America has only 7.3 percent of the total Catholics while Latin America has 41.5 percent.

Africa has seen the greatest growth, increasing by 4.3 percent during 2011, outpacing that continent’s population growth, which was 2.3 percent.

More good news in the new statistics is the fact that the number of priests—diocesan and religious order—continued to climb overall, by 1,182 to a total of 413,418. But that growth, too, didn’t happen in the Americas or, especially, in Europe. That’s hardly a surprise since it’s obvious that the United States is experiencing a priest shortage, and Europe has seen the number of its priests decline more than 9 percent over the past decade.

However, that’s not true in Africa and Asia. In the past 10 years, the new report says, the number of men preparing for the priesthood rose more than 30.9 percent in Africa and 29.4 percent in Asia. Meanwhile, Europe saw a 21.7 percent drop in priesthood candidates between 2001 and 2011.

Perhaps you noted, in the story that we published in our May 10 issue about newly ordained Father John Kamwendo, that he had to compete with other boys in his native Tanzania to be admitted into a minor seminary. Sixty boys applied, but only four were accepted. The seminaries in Africa do that because they have room for only some of the boys or men who want to test a possible vocation to the priesthood.

Religious orders for men have seen a decline in numbers in the Americas, 3.6 percent over the last decade, and in Europe, down 18 percent in 10 years. However, in Africa and Asia they have seen a substantial increase. In Africa, there was an 18.5 percent increase since 2001 and in Asia a whopping 44.9 percent increase.

What about women religious? There the numbers aren’t as good. Even with some increases in Africa and Asia, the number of women in religious orders had a 10 percent decrease since 2001. They went from having a total of more than 792,000 members in 2001 to just over 713,000 at the end of 2011. Nevertheless, we’d like to point out, that number is considerably higher than the 413,418 priests.

And permanent deacons? Their numbers increased by more than 1,400 during 2011 to about 41,000. Almost all of them—97.4 percent—live in the Americas or Europe.

Catholics in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis have noticed how these statistics are changing the Catholic Church in central and southern Indiana. As bishops are doing in many dioceses, we have more priests here from Africa and Asia. American dioceses, including the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, are making arrangements with bishops in Africa and Asia that involve educating some of their seminarians in return for service for a certain period of time in the U.S.

We could well see more of that in the future.

—John F. Fink

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