The Church at the Beginning of 2000

Authored By: ZENIT



Figures Speak for Themselves

ROME, 25 JAN 2000 (ZENIT)

"How many divisions does the Pope have?" Joseph Stalin once ironically asked the official warning him of the Vatican’s "power." Decades later, totalitarian regimes have all but vanished, while the Catholic Church, founded strictly on an evangelical message of love, has continued to grow.

We present here an overview of the world’s Catholic population, which now exceeds 1 billion members.


In Asia, where two-thirds of humanity lives, although Christ is still unknown by a majority, there is untold hope for the future. During his recent trip to India, John Paul II said he was convinced that Asia will be the continent where the Gospel will spread most widely in the third millennium. At present, two-thirds of Asian Catholics are in the Philippines, where they constitute the majority. Out of a total population of 70 million, 84% are Roman Catholics.

The future of believers in the Asian continent depends, to a large extent, on religious liberty. South Korea, for example, is the country with the fastest growing number of conversions in the world. There are some 150,000 baptisms every year. It is the fourth largest in Asia in terms of numbers of Catholics, after the Philippines, India and Vietnam.
East Timor is a Catholic enclave on the rim of Indonesia, the largest
Muslim country in the world. In a recent vote, it won its independence,
but rioting afterwards leaves the island crippled. In the remaining
countries, Catholics constitute a very small minority: China 0.1%; India
1,75%, Indonesia 2.58%, Japan 0.35%, Pakistan 0.66%, and Bangladesh 0.18%

The Americas

America has surpassed Europe, becoming the most Catholic continent of the planet in terms of numbers of faithful. 8 out of 10 Latin Americans are baptized. Brazil, with 161 million inhabitants (88% Catholic) is the largest Catholic country in the world, followed by Mexico, with 95 million inhabitants, 94% of whom are Catholics.

During the 20th century, Latin American Catholics endured marginalization and even persecution by Freemasonry and waves of anti-clericalism, especially in Mexico and Uruguay. In recent times, internal divisions were caused by Marxist influences. But at present, the Church in Latin America is increasingly united and experiencing considerable dynamism. The oft reported progress of Protestants in converting Catholics, although alarming in some cases, overall seems somewhat superficial: a good many people who join these churches leave them within a few years.

The Catholic population is growing in the United States, and this is not solely due to Latin American immigrants. At present, there are 60 million Catholics in the U.S., almost 25% of the population.


Catholics in Africa comprise 15% of the population. Considering countries with over one million inhabitants, the principal Catholic communities are in Angola (54%), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (52%), Uganda (40%), Republic of the Congo (42%), Burundi (59%), Rwanda (44%), Gabon (55%), and Equatorial Guinea (76%). Of these eight countries, five are suffering the consequences of terrible civil wars.

The Pope’s Army

The number of priests worldwide has gone from 420,971 in 1978 to 404,208 in 1997, amounting to a decrease of about 4%.

This decrease varies by continent, however. In Africa and Asia the number of priests is increasing; in the Americas it is stable. The marked decrease was recorded in Western Europe and Oceania, but vocations are growing in Eastern Europe.

The greatest growth in the ministerial priesthood is in Africa, where the figure has increased from 16,926 in 1978 to 25,279 in 1997 -- a growth of about 49.35%. Similar growth was recorded in Asia, where the number of priests increased from 27,700 in 1978 to 40,441 in 1997 -- a 46% increase. In 1978 there were 120,271 priests in the Americas, as compared to 120,013 in 1997. And in Oceania, the number of priests decreased from 5,576 in 1978 to 5,077 in 1997. But the greatest drop in the number of ordained ministers was in Europe, where the figures went from 250,498 in 1978 to 213,398 in 1997 -- a decrease of 14.81%.

There are two sides to the crisis in the old Continent. In the traditionally Catholic countries, the crisis is more acute: Italy registers (-13.84%), Spain (-16.61%), Portugal (-17.37%), Belgium (-35.51%) and France (-32.70%). However, there has been a marked growth in vocations in Eastern Europe: in Byelorussia (+586.49%), Poland (+36.57%), Rumania (+85.96%), and Ukraine (+121%).

Contrary to the situation with priests, the number of bishops has registered a steady increase. Between 1979 and 1997, 2,061 new bishops were appointed. In 1978 there were 3,714 bishops worldwide, whereas in 1997 the number rose to 4,420. Africa has gone from 432 bishops in 1978 to 562 in 1997. In Asia the number of bishops grew from 519 to 617 for the same period; in America, from 1,416 to 1,659; in Oceania from 94 to 118; and in Europe from 1,253 to 1,464.

The number of priests leaving the priesthood has also decreased. Between 1978 and 1997 there were 21,850 who left, the majority being in Europe, with 9,699 priests leaving the ministry. Europe was followed by the Americas with 8,472 defections. In the remaining continents this number reached 1,489 in Africa; 1,735 in Asia; and 455 in Oceania. 1973 was the year when the greatest number of priests left the priesthood: 4,222 worldwide.

The principal cause for the decrease in the number of priests is due not so much to defections as to the lack of young men responding to God’s call. Between 1978 and 1997, 144,437 priests died. Thus, old age has become the great challenge to the priesthood. In 1995 the average age of priests was 54.6 years, and of bishops, 66.49.

The growth in the number of deacons, however, is impressive. In 1978 there were 5,562 permanent deacons, while in 1997 the number rose to 24,407. This is almost exclusively a Western phenomenon, as there are virtually no permanent deacons in Eastern European and developing countries.

Western Europe continues to have the largest number of Bishops. Italy leads with 501, followed by France with 175, and Spain with 116. The average age of Bishops is very high: 71 in Italy, 71.3 in France, and 67.2 in Spain.

"Universalizing" the Curia

The process of internationalizing the Curia, begun by Pius XII and momentarily stopped by John XXIII, was given a decisive impulse by Paul VI and an even greater impetus by John Paul II.

John Paul II is the Pope who has created the greatest number of Cardinals in the entire history of the Church. He has named 157 Cardinals, while Pope Leo XIII named 147 and Paul VI 144. During John Paul II’s pontificate there has been a record of countries represented in the Sacred College: 60 (or 50 if one counts only Cardinals with the right to vote). Pius XII created 56 Cardinals of whom 36 were European (64%) and only 14 Italians (25%). John XXIII was the most Eurocentric of this century with 52 Cardinals, 37 of whom were European (71%) and 22 Italian (24%).

With Paul VI and John Paul II the internationalization of the College has been considerable. Of the 144 Cardinals created by Paul VI, only 38 were Italian. John Paul II has created only 37 Italians out of his total of 157.

At present the Italian sector of the College of Cardinals represents an historical minimum. Of the 106 voting Cardinals, only 17 are Italian (16%). At the beginning of the 20th century, the Italians constituted 61% of the College. They lost their majority under Pius XII and were reduced to a third by Paul VI; at present their number has decreased by 20%. The only notable block retained by the Italians is that of the non-voting Cardinals: 42%.

The personnel of the Curia at the beginning of the century was mostly Italian. At present, however, the number of Italians is constantly decreasing. With the appointment of Archbishop Zenon Grocholewski as head of the Congregation for Catholic Education, substituting Cardinal Pio Laghi, the Italians at the head of the most important Vatican organizations are only two: Cardinal Angelo Sodano and Cardinal Achille Silvestrini. In 1960 only one Vatican Congregation was not headed by an Italian.

This radical change has created a new sort of joke in Vatican circles:
"Need to internationalize the Roman Curia? Good idea. Name an Italian." ZE00012504

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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