VATICAN CITY (AP) — The number of Catholic priests in Africa and Asia has shot up over the past decade while decreasing in Europe, mirroring trends in the numbers of Catholic faithful that helped lead to the election of Pope Francis as the first non-European pope in over a millennium.
The Vatican on Monday released statistics on the state of the Catholic Church in the world, showing a 39.5 percent increase in the number of priests in Africa and a 32 percent hike in Asia from 2001 to 2011. The number of priests in Europe fell by 9 percent, while remaining stable in the Americas. Worldwide, priest numbers were up 2.1 percent.
Meanwhile, the number of Catholics overall — or those who have been baptized — rose from 1.196 billion in 2010 to 1.214 billion in 2011. Given the world's population increase, though, the overall proportion of Catholics remained essentially unchanged at 17.5 percent.
For years, the Vatican has been battling a drop-off in vocations and baptisms in Europe and North America, while seeing a boom in the developing world. Retired Pope Benedict XVI spent most of his eight-year pontificate trying to revive the Catholic faith in these once-traditionally Christian lands.
Francis was elected the first pope from the Americas in part riding a wave of demands that the Catholic Church hierarchy better reflect the demographics of today's church, where two-thirds of the world's Catholics live in the southern hemisphere. Yet while the pope hails from Argentina, most of the Vatican leadership is European, the majority of cardinals who elected him are European and the bulk of the world's bishops — 70 percent — continue to hail from Europe and the Americas, not Africa or Asia.
One bright growth spot for the Church in Europe and the Americas is the increase in so-called permanent deacons, who can be married men who can preach: Their numbers shot up 43 percent in Europe over the decade, and in the Americas went from 19,100 in 2001 to 26,000 in 2011.
While the number of nuns rose in Africa and Asia over the past decade, their numbers couldn't offset the steep, 10 percent global drop in sisters of religious orders, with Europe registering a 22 percent decline, Oceania a 21 percent drop and the Americas down 17 percent.
The situation of religious sisters in the United States is particularly dramatic: The Vatican in recent years has launched two investigations into their plight, one focusing on their quality of life to determine how to reverse their decline, and one into doctrinal problems in the main umbrella group of women's religious congregations.