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Vatican statistics: Africa had biggest increase in Catholics, while numbers fell in Europe

Pope Francis arrived in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Jan. 31, 2023. The streets of the pope’s five-mile drive from the N’Dolo Airport to the presidential residence were lined with thousands of locals who cheered and waved flags. / Credit: Vatican Media

CNA Staff, Oct 24, 2023 / 10:18 am (CNA).

New data from the Vatican show that Africa added the greatest number of Catholics in 2021 out of all the continents and that all the world’s continents registered at least a modest increase in the number of Catholics in 2021 — except for Europe, which continued a yearslong decline. 

The annual report, released Oct. 22 by the Vatican’s Fides news agency on the occasion of World Mission Sunday, covers the one-year time period of Dec. 31, 2020, to Dec. 31, 2021. World Mission Sunday was established by Pope Pius XI in 1926 and is usually observed on the third Sunday of October. 

Catholics in the world numbered 1,375,852,000 people at the end of 2021, with an overall increase of 16.2 million compared with the previous year, the report states. 

The African continent gained 40 million people in the time frame studied, 8.3 million of whom are Catholic. Pope Francis has shown particular pastoral attention to Africa this year, making a visit to the heavily Catholic Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan early in 2023. 

The world’s percentage of Catholics decreased very slightly compared with the previous year, standing at 17.67% in 2021 as opposed to 17.7% the previous year, the report says. The total number of persons per priest in the world increased, to an average of 15,556, which is about 3,373 Catholics per priest. 

Worldwide, the total number of priests dropped by 2,347 to approximately 408,000. Europe suffered the largest drop, with 3,632 fewer priests from the previous year. Balancing out that loss, however, was a net gain of more than 1,500 priests in Africa and about half that many in Asia. The Americas lost nearly a thousand priests, and Oceania recorded a small gain of less than a dozen. 

The decline in the number of priests in 2021 was less dramatic than in 2020 when Fides recorded a decrease of 4,117 compared with 2019.  

(The Fides statistics do not mention baptism rates, but other data show that in addition to a higher baptism rate, Africa has a far higher rate of Mass attendance in countries with large Catholic populations. An analysis done earlier this year by CARA found that Nigeria, Kenya, and Lebanon have the highest proportion of Catholics who attend Mass weekly or more, with Nigeria as the clear leader with 94% of Catholics reporting they attend Mass at least weekly. In Kenya, the figure was 73%, and in Lebanon it was 69%. In comparison, in Germany, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, less than 15% say they attend Mass weekly.)

The number of permanent deacons changed little, with a gain of 541 worldwide for a total of 49,176. Europe and the Americas showed the strongest gains with 150 and 139 additional permanent deacons respectively.

The number of male religious dropped worldwide by nearly 800, due in part to large losses in Europe, the Americas, and Oceania, which were balanced somewhat by a gain of 205 religious men in Africa. 

The picture for women religious was more dire. There remain nearly 609,000 women religious in the world — outnumbering even priests — but that figure has dropped by 10,588 in the time period studied, led by a massive loss of more than 7,800 in Europe. The Americas also hemorrhaged more than 5,000 religious women, while Africa gained more than 2,000. 

The number of lay missionaries and catechists fell dramatically in the Americas, by almost 4,000, compared with modest gains in Africa and Europe and a larger gain of nearly 670 in Asia. 

Africa was the only continent that registered a rise in the number of major seminarians, with a net gain of 187 — Africa also has the largest number of major seminarians overall, with nearly 34,000. In contrast, Asia, Europe, and the Americas had triple-digit losses, while Oceania’s numbers were virtually unchanged. Worldwide, the number of major seminarians fell by nearly 2,000 to around 110,000. 

The total number of minor seminarians rose worldwide, however, with a gain of over 300 to 95,714. Africa again led the pack with a gain of more than 2,000, while Asia hemorrhaged the most with 1,216. 

The Church operates more than 74,000 kindergartens, nearly 101,000 Catholic primary schools, and 50,000 secondary schools worldwide, according to the data. There are about 2.5 million Catholic high school pupils and 4 million students attending Catholic universities. 

Africa has the largest total number of infant pupils, Catholic primary schools, primary school pupils, and Catholic secondary schools, and the third-most secondary school students out of all the continents, after Europe and Asia. 

The Americas have the largest number of university students in Catholic schools, accounting for more than half of all the Catholic university students in the world. Meanwhile, Asia has the largest number of Catholic high schoolers, with 1.3 million.

Additionally, the Church runs 5,405 hospitals worldwide,15,276 homes for the elderly and needy, and 9,703 orphanages, with Asia making up the largest share of those orphanages.

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