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VATICAN LETTER May-5-2006 (900 words) Backgrounder. With graphic posted May 3. xxxi

The numbers game: Stats give picture of Pope John Paul's pontificate

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Under Pope John Paul II's 26-year papacy, the Catholic Church grew by 45 percent, struggled to replace priests and religious, and experienced a significant "graying" of its hierarchy, according to statistics released recently by the Vatican.

In a sense, the statistics complete a by-the-numbers portrait of Pope John Paul's pontificate. They cover the period from 1978, the year of his election, through the end of 2004, three months before he died.

The worldwide Catholic population increased by 342 million during that time, from 757 million to just under 1.1 billion.

That sounds huge, but it was actually slightly less than the rate of general population increase. As a result, Catholics as a percentage of the world population decreased from about 18 percent in 1978 to about 17.2 percent at the end of 2004.

The continent-by-continent numbers are more significant than the global totals, confirming the church's demographic shift to the developing world.

The church in Africa grew by 172 percent under Pope John Paul, increasing from about 12 percent to 17 percent of the African population. By the end of 2004, Africans represented about 14 percent of Catholics worldwide, compared to 7 percent in 1978.

The number of Catholics in North and South America, where about half the church's members live, increased about 50 percent, virtually the same as the general population growth.

Europe showed signs of stagnation. The Catholic population there increased by 13 million in the first 10 years of Pope John Paul's papacy, but over the last 16 years declined by more than 650,000. The overall European growth rate under Pope John Paul was 4.6 percent, the lowest by far of any continent.

The number of Catholics in Asia increased nearly 80 percent over the same period. The fact that Catholics still represent only 2.9 percent of the total Asian population explains why many Vatican officials see the continent as the great frontier of evangelization.

Oceania's tiny Catholic population managed to increase more than 50 percent under Pope John Paul, slightly more than the general population increase.

When it came to priests, the Vatican statistics highlighted the "good news, bad news" picture that typified Pope John Paul's papacy. The good news was that the number of seminarians increased 77 percent from 1978 to 2004, with the greatest jumps in Africa, 304 percent, and Asia, 153 percent.

The bad news was that the number of priests worldwide has decreased about 3.5 percent since 1978 -- and with the Catholic population up 45 percent, that means the average pastoral workload is much heavier. The Vatican called the global figures "rather disappointing."

If church officials are looking for a silver lining in those numbers, they may find it in the fact that over the last 16 years the number of diocesan priests has increased by 11,634, reversing a trend. The number of religious-order priests continues to decline, however.

Europe showed the greatest drop in the number of total priests, losing 20 percent under Pope John Paul. North America dropped 13 percent, South America gained 29 percent, Africa was up 84 percent and Asia up 74 percent. In the United States, the total number of diocesan and religious priests dropped nearly 20 percent in the period 1978-2004.

The Vatican also examined the numbers of priesthood candidates in relation to the Catholic population and found "greater dynamism" in Africa and Asia, which have more than 150 seminarians for every 1 million Catholics. Europe had 84 seminarians and North and South America about 67 for every 1 million Catholics.

The statistics confirmed two other widely known trends under Pope John Paul: the sharp decline in the number of women religious -- down about 23 percent, from 991,000 to 767,000 -- and the sharp increase in permanent deacons, up about 480 percent, from 5,500 to 32,000.

Not so widely known has been the aging of the episcopate, which was detailed for the first time by the Vatican.

Pope John Paul II appointed a great number of new bishops in his 26 years, and by the end of 2004 had increased the total number of bishops to nearly 4,800, about 29 percent more than in 1978. Africa led the way, with an increase of 46 percent in the number of bishops.

One might expect that, especially with a greater number of Third World bishops, the average age would have decreased. In fact, during the period 1978-2004 the average age of bishops increased more than 5 years, from 62 to 67.4 years, the Vatican said.

The oldest episcopate is in Europe, where the average age of bishops is now above 69. In North and South America, bishops average 67.8 years of age, in Oceania 67 and in Africa 63.6.

The Vatican said another indicator of the same phenomenon was the number of bishops age 65 or older, which rose from 39 percent worldwide in 1978 to 59 percent in 2004. In Europe, 64 percent of today's bishops are over 65.

But even in Africa, where some of the youngest church communities live, 46 percent of the bishops are now over 65, compared to only 22 percent in 1978. That trend may reverse itself as Africa's record numbers of Pope John Paul-era priests move into the age bracket from which new bishops are typically chosen.


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