VATICAN CITY (RNS) – A Vatican census released ahead of World Mission Day reveals growing numbers of Catholics in what Pope Francis often calls “the world’s peripheries,” even as the number of believers continues to decline in Europe.
The number of Catholics in the world increased by more than 15 million from 2018 to 2019, according to a census by the Vatican news agency Fides published on Thursday, October 21. “The increase applies to all continents except Europe,” which has seen the number of Catholic faithful fall by nearly 300,000, according to the survey.
The data was released ahead of World Mission Day 95, which will be celebrated in dioceses around the world on Sunday after the year-long hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The number of Catholics in the world increased by more than 15 million from 2018 to 2019. “The increase applies to all continents except Europe.
According to the census, carried out annually among the Catholic faithful, Catholics made up 17.7% of the world’s population in 2019. As Catholicism gained followers in Africa, the Americas and Asia, the number of the church declined. in Europe, the historical basin of Catholicism which is now increasingly becoming a mission territory.
While the number of Catholic priests has increased overall, Europe has seen a steady decrease in clergy, where the number of faithful per priest has risen to more than 3,245 to 1. For the seventh year in a row, the number number of men and women religious has declined everywhere, Africa being the only exception. Nuns suffered the biggest drop, losing 11,562 members.
Seminarians studying to become priests have also declined around the world, especially in small seminaries for people aged 11-18. Bishops have declined by 13, now totaling 5,364 worldwide.
While members of the clergy have experienced a sharp decline around the world, the number of lay missionaries has increased significantly, particularly in the Americas and Africa, with only a small decrease in Asia. Catechists saw their numbers drop by 2,590, with the Americas and Europe recording the largest drops.
While members of the clergy have experienced a sharp decline around the world, the number of lay missionaries has increased significantly, especially in the Americas and Africa, with only a small decrease in Asia.
Fides’ data takes into account all Catholics until December 31, 2019. Given the COVID-19 pandemic and the church closures and deaths that followed, experts at a Vatican press conference Thursday admitted that the numbers may have changed significantly in 2020.
Archbishop Giovanni Pietro Dal Toso, president of the Pontifical Mission Societies, addressed the challenges of gathering all the data, especially during the pandemic. While admitting that “dechristianization is evident,” Dal Toso added that beneath the surface there are new and living Christian communities that are thriving, even in Europe.
“I think it will be necessary to set up Christian formation courses” to help the faithful to better understand Catholicism, he said.
In a message released at the press conference and written in January, Pope Francis said that “the pandemic has exposed and amplified the pain, loneliness, poverty and injustices experienced by so many. It unmasked our false sense of security and revealed the disruption and polarization that quietly grows among us. “
“I think that Christian formation courses will have to be set up” to help the faithful to better understand Catholicism.
The frailest and most vulnerable have been hit hardest by the pandemic, the Pope said, as the world witnesses “growing negativity that stifles hope.” Despite these challenges, Francis said that “the call to mission is not a thing of the past” and that the world needs missionaries ready to “go to the peripheries of our world as messengers and agents of compassion”.
Speaking at the press conference, Cardinal Luis Tagle of the Philippines encouraged the faithful to become “missionaries of compassion and hope.” Referring to his experience of living in Asia, where Catholics represent a minority of the population, the cardinal warned that “if we keep the faith to ourselves we will become weak, and if we keep the faith for a small group, that could become an elite. group.”,
Instead, he continued, Christians and missionaries are called “to reach all nations, geographic and existential spaces.”
Tagle has led the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of the People since 2019 and holds several important positions in the Vatican which have led many observers to consider the Cardinal “papabile”, that is, a possible candidate for the election of the Pope. at the next conclave.