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The number of Catholics in Europe is growing

POPE BLESSING
HO - OSSERVATORE ROMANO - AFP
This handout picture released by the Vatican press office shows Pope Francis standing on a balcony of St Peter's basilica during the traditional "Urbi et Orbi" Christmas message to the city and the world, on December 25, 2015 in Vatican. AFP PHOTO / OSSERVATORE ROMANO/HO
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Courage, Mother Church! Rediscover your fruitfulness in the joy of mission!

On the occasion of the 93rd World Mission Day, the Fides Agency has published a report on statistics regarding the Church around the world. As of December 31, 2017, out of a total of more than 7.4 billion people in the world, 1.3 billion are Catholic, which is to say, slightly less than one in five.

There are 14,219,000 more baptized people than the previous year, an increase of 11%. This difference is almost identical to the previous year, the report says. Also, this growth is greater than the global population growth, which was 7%.

As well as to be expected, the African and American continents showed the greatest increase in the number of faithful, with 5,600,000 in Africa and 6,083,000 in the Americas. They’re followed by Asia and Oceania.

The real novelty, though, is that after three consecutive years of decline, Europe’s Catholic population grew by 259,000. Nonetheless, we have to put this statistic in perspective in comparison to the general increase of the population: 1,059,000 more than the previous year.

The number of priests and seminarians decreased

Once again, however, the number of priests, diocesan and religious, decreased worldwide with a current total of 414,582, which is 387 fewer than on December 31, 2016. The decrease is greatest in Europe, with a drop of nearly 3,000 priests. Oceania suffered a loss of 97 priests. On the other hand, the number of priests has increased in Africa (1,200) as well as in America and Asia.

The report describes a general decrease in the number of seminarians throughout the world, both diocesan and religious. With a total of 115,328, there are 832 fewer seminarians in the world than the previous year. There was also a drop in the number of minor seminarians: 835 less than the previous year, for a total of 100,781.

An increase in deacons and lay missionaries

The report mentions an increase in the number of permanent deacons in the world: the number rose to 46,894. With 408 new deacons, the Americas are where there has been the greatest increase.

The Americas are followed by Europe (+142), Asia (+28), and Oceania (+11). Lastly, Africa shows a slight decrease (-7). It should also to be taken into account that, regarding the total number of deacons in the world, there are only 702 religious permanent deacons, a number which has basically remained stable.

There was an increase in the number of lay missionaries in the world, 355,800, the report points out: 1,057 new missionaries have committed themselves to this vocation in comparison to the previous year. Europe is where this tendency continues to be strongest, with an increase of 836. However, a decrease of 947 in the number of lay missionaries in Africa should also be taken into account.

For the fifth year in a row, the Fides Agency also reported a decrease in the number of male religious who are not priests (-1090), compared to the total number of 51,535. With the exception of Africa (-48), there is a worldwide decrease. This decline continues to be particularly significant in Europe (-525).

There’s also a drop in the number of female religious. There are currently 648,910, which is 10,535 fewer than the previous year. Unsurprisingly, there were increases in Asia and Africa.

These numbers on the whole show both reasons for concern and reasons for hope. Social, philosophical, economic, cultural, and political forces inside and outside the Church all affect its vitality and composition, and the great changes on all levels that the world is experiencing are reflected in these statistics. Things are in some ways better, in some ways worse, and in some ways, simply different. For instance, throughout the history of the Church, there has been a constant ebb and flow of missionaries from one region of the world to another; the evangelizers have become the evangelized on more than one occasion. The vitality of regions in the “New World” and in the southern hemisphere and an increase in lay involvement are signs of hope that counterbalance, to some extent, other negative numbers.

What matters most, though, is that these numbers serve as a reminder for us that the mission to “make disciples of all nations” is far from complete. As Pope Francis said at the end of his homily during the Vespers for the opening of the Missionary Month:

The Lord expects great things from you. He is also expecting some of you to have the courage to set out and to go wherever dignity and hope are most lacking, where all too many people still live without the joy of the Gospel. … The Holy Spirit is the protagonist of our mission. Go with the Holy Spirit. The Lord will not leave you alone in bearing witness; you will discover that the Holy Spirit has gone before you and prepared the way for you. Courage, brothers and sisters! Courage, Mother Church! Rediscover your fruitfulness in the joy of mission!

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