Catholicism: Centre of Gravity Moving South and East

On March 25, 2021, the Holy See unveiled the Pontifical Yearbook 2021 and the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae 2019, two publications that provide an exhaustive inventory of the life of the Church in the world. The vitality of Catholicism in Africa and Asia is being confirmed.

Our Lady of Africa

At the level of ecclesiastical structures, the data provided by the Pontifical Yearbook shows a trend towards stability in 2020: during this year, 2 metropolitan sees and 4 episcopal sees were erected, 2 dioceses were elevated as metropolitan sees, 2 territorial prelatures and 1 apostolic vicariate in a diocese.

Statistical data from the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae, referring to the year 2019, allow a more in-depth analysis of the life of the Church.

In 2019, there are just under 1.345 billion Catholics, against about 1.329 billion in 2018, an increase, in absolute value, of 16 million (+ 1.12%). A growth close to that of the world population (+ 1.08%) and which shows a certain stability of the presence of Catholics in the world, a presence that can be evaluated at 17.7%.

Between 2018 and 2019, the Catholic presence at the regional level has undergone changes: a decline is starting in the North and South American continents, where the share of Catholics in the two continents combined has fallen from 48.3% to 48.1%.  It is of some importance to underline how the two American continents are very differentiated: whereas in North America the percentage of Catholics is only 24.7%, in Central America and the Antilles (84.6%) and in South America (86.6%) the presence of Catholics appears much more conspicuous.

In Europe, the decline in the number of Catholics continues inexorably: from 21.5% to 21.2% in the space of a year.

Two signs which show the effects of growing secularization in the North and South American continents, and especially South America which remains the lungs of the Church; and for old Europe, the continuation of this unbridled secularization and the emergence of a post-Christian society, of which the laws in favour of the culture of death, are among the most tangible signs.

Conversely, Catholics have increased in Africa (from 18.3% to 18.7%) and, more slightly, in Southeast Asia, while the proportion of Catholics in Oceania remains stable: as in the previous year, shows the emerging of a slow displacement of the centre of gravity of the Church towards the former mission territories of African and the Far East.

Another interesting indicator: the number of priests, diocesan and religious, increased from 414,065 to 414,336; misleading figures which hide great regional disparities.

Indeed, alongside significant increases for Africa and Asia (3.45% and 2.91%, respectively), Europe and America are experiencing a decline of 0.5% and 1.5% respectively.

Even more worrying, the general decline that has characterized priestly vocations in recent years continues: candidates for the priesthood on the planet have gone from 115,880 in 2018 to 114,058 in 2019, a decrease of 1.6% which has spared no continent, apart from Africa, and jeopardizes the visibility of the Church in many places.

This drop thus reached 2.4% for the North and South American continents. In Europe and Asia, it reached 3.8% and 2.6% respectively, while in Oceania, the number of major seminarians in 2019 was 5.2% lower than in the previous year.

Only Africa seems to have been spared, since the number of major seminarians has increased from 32,212 to 32,721 men.

The regional distribution of candidates for the priesthood has changed significantly during the period analyzed by the Statistical Yearbook: Africa, which in 2018 represented 27.8% of the world total, increased in 2019 to 28.7%. At the same time, Europe fell from 14.3% to 13.9%.

Some would still like to be reassured while waiting for the renewal promised by Vatican II – as we wait for Godot – but there is an urgency for the Church. It is rather a case of fully reclaiming, with courage, the faith and the Tradition which made it shine in the world.

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