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Church in numbers: Africa gained nearly 1,000 priests in a year

Attendees wait for Pope Francis to start the mass at the N'Dolo Airport in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo


Priests at Pope's mass in Democratic Republic of Congo in February 2023

I.Media - published on 03/07/23

There are approximately 1.378 billion Catholics in the world.

On February 28, 2023, the Vatican Publishing House (VPL) published the 2023 edition of the Pontifical Yearbook, which compiles data on the life of the Catholic Church throughout the world between December 1, 2021 and November 30, 2022, as well as the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae 2021, which provides a global view of the pastoral action of the Catholic Church in the 3,030 ecclesiastical circumscriptions of the world.

The data show a decline in religious and priestly vocations in Europe, while they are increasing in Africa.

A summary published by L’Osservatore Romano reviews the data compiled by this statistical yearbook, which shows an increase in the number of baptized Catholics of 1.3% in the world between 2020 and 2021 (from approximately 1,360,000,000 to 1,378,000,000), a rate that is less than that of the growth of the global population, estimated at 1.6% (from 7,667,000,000 to 7,786,000,000). The symbolic milestone of eight billion inhabitants on earth has been passed, with the UN dating the crossing of this threshold to November 15, 2022.

As has been the trend for several years, the evolution of the number of Catholics follows quite disparate directions according to continents, with a significant increase in Africa (+3.1%), more modest in America (+1.01%) and Asia (+0.99), and a stagnation in Europe.

As of December 31, 2021, Catholics represented a total of 17.67% of the world’s population. Catholics are in the majority only in the Americas with 64.1% of the population, and are in the minority in Europe (39.6%), Oceania (25.9%), Africa (19.4%) and especially in Asia (3.3%).

The share of the globe’s Catholics has dropped on the European continent, from 21% to 18% of the total in just one year. Logically, given the age pyramid, Africa’s share is growing, doubling that of Europe, with 19.3% of baptized Catholics in the world.

At the global level, the number of clerics has decreased by 0.39% in one year. The Yearbook lists 5,340 bishops, 407,872 priests and 49,176 permanent deacons as of December 31, 2021. On average, on a worldwide scale, the Statistical Yearbook counts one bishop for every 76 priests and 258,000 Catholics.

The challenge of priestly vocations remains, with the number of priests decreasing by 0.57% worldwide between 2020 and 2021, from 410,219 to 407,872 units.

The increase of nearly a thousand priests in Africa, and more nuanced increases in Asia and Oceania, partially offset the decrease in clergy in Europe.

However, the Old Continent still has a high priestly staffing rate, with one priest for every 1,784 baptized, compared to one priest for every 5,000 baptized in South America.

The permanent diaconate is growing in Europe (with 15,438 deacons) and in America (32,373 in total, with a strong presence of the diaconate in the United States in particular), but remains rare in Africa, Asia, and Oceania.

The number of religious men and women who are not priests is declining significantly, particularly in Europe, Oceania, and America, while the number of consecrated persons is increasing in Africa. As of December 31, 2021, the Catholic Church worldwide has a total of 608,958 women religious and 49,774 men religious who are not clerics.

The number of seminarians also continues to decline, with an overall decrease of 1.8% worldwide, and a particularly noticeable decrease in North America and Europe (-5.8%). In relative terms, the number of seminarians remains higher in Europe (5.01 per 100,000 Catholics) than in South America (4.13). Asia has a significant rate of priestly vocations in a context of minority, with 20.96 seminarians per 100,000 baptized.

The threshold for clergy renewal is estimated at 12.5 seminarians per 100 priests. Europe is below (9 seminarians per 100 priests), as is North America (11.21 per 100), while Africa shows a spectacular ratio (65 per 100), which suggests that it will continue to grow in the ecclesial demography of the decades to come.

Catholic ChurchCatholicism
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