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 CNS Story:

Church's international contours changed under Pope John Paul II

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The next pope will lead a Catholic Church whose international contours have changed dramatically under the more than 26-year pontificate of Pope John Paul II.

In simple numbers, the world's Catholic population has increased about 43 percent, from 757 million in 1978 to 1.09 billion at the end of 2003, the last year for which official church statistics have been released.

More significant has been a definite Third World shift under Pope John Paul. The number of Catholics in Africa has increased more than 160 percent, from 55 million to 144 million. In Asia, the increase has been about 95 percent, from 58 million to 113 million.

In Latin America, the church population has increased about 50 percent, somewhat less than the overall population. Still, about 43 percent of the church's membership now lives in Latin American countries.

The Catholic population of North America, which includes the United States and Canada but not Mexico or Central America in the Vatican's reckoning, has increased 36 percent since 1978 -- slightly more than the general population increase.

Although not in a strictly proportional sense, those population changes have been reflected in the College of Cardinals and in the Roman Curia, the network of Vatican offices. As European influence has lessened, the Third World presence has grown.

In particular, Italian influence has declined. When Pope John Paul came to office in 1978, Italians controlled about half the Vatican's top 20 departments. Today, Italians hold only four of those top spots.

At present, nearly 40 percent of the cardinal and archbishop members of the nine Vatican congregations are from developing countries. In the coming conclave, about 44 percent of the voting cardinals will be from developing countries.

When it comes to those who work in a ministerial or teaching capacity for the church, there was an increase in most categories under Pope John Paul, but a decrease among members of religious orders.

Overall, the "workforce for the church's apostolate" has jumped from 1.6 million to 4.2 million since 1978. The number of bishops in the world increased from 3,600 to 4,700 -- and about three-fourths of them were appointed by Pope John Paul.

The huge increase in the number of nonordained church workers is indicative of their increasingly important role in many African and Latin American church communities.

When Pope John Paul assumed the papacy, the church had 173,000 catechists; today there are about 2.8 million. The number of "lay missionaries" -- not even a category when the pope was elected -- has now reached 144,000, most of them in Latin America.

Despite what the Vatican considers as hopeful trends in priestly vocations, there are far fewer priests per Catholic today than when the pope came to office. In 1978 the worldwide ratio was 1,800 Catholics for every priest; today it is nearly 2,700 Catholics per priest.

The biggest growth in priestly vocations has occurred in Africa, where the number of diocesan clergy has more than tripled over the last 26 years. In Asia, the number of diocesan priests has more than doubled.

The number of religious priests worldwide has declined steadily since 1978, from about 158,000 to 137,000, and religious brothers are down from about 75,000 to 55,000. The sharpest drop has been in the number of women religious, which has gone from 985,000 to 783,000.

Permanent deacons emerged as a significant pastoral force during Pope John Paul's term: They numbered 5,500 in 1978 and are more than 29,000 today. Nearly half of them are in the United States.

The church strengthened its social and educational roles under Pope John Paul. For example, there are more than 113,000 church-run health and welfare institutions today, compared to 64,000 in 1978; more than half are in the Third World. The figure includes clinics, homes for the elderly and disabled, orphanages and marriage counseling centers.

The number of church-run schools increased, and enrollment rose more than 50 percent under Pope John Paul. At the university level, the increase was more dramatic: Enrollment at Catholic institutions of higher education rose from about 2 million in 1978 to more than 4 million today.


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