New data from the Vatican reveals significant trends in the global Catholic population. The Vatican’s annual report, released on World Mission Sunday, covers the period from December 31, 2020, to December 31, 2021. The report indicates that Africa experienced the largest increase in the number of Catholics in 2021, while Europe continued to see a decline in Catholic numbers.
The global Catholic population reached 1,375,852,000 by the end of 2021, marking an overall increase of 16.2 million compared to the previous year. The African continent saw substantial growth during this period, with 40 million people added, including 8.3 million new Catholics.
Pope Francis demonstrated a particular focus on Africa by visiting the heavily Catholic regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan in early 2023. Despite this growth, the percentage of Catholics worldwide decreased slightly, standing at 17.67% in 2021 compared to 17.7% in the previous year.
The data also indicates changes in the number of Catholic priests globally. The total number of priests decreased by 2,347 to approximately 408,000. Europe experienced the most significant decline, with 3,632 fewer priests than the previous year. However, Africa and Asia recorded a net gain of more than 1,500 priests and half that many, respectively. The Americas saw a decrease of nearly a thousand priests, while Oceania had a minor gain of fewer than a dozen.
It’s worth noting that the decline in the number of priests in 2021 was less dramatic than in the previous year when there was a decrease of 4,117 compared to 2019.
The data also highlights variations in Mass attendance rates among Catholic populations. Some African countries, such as Nigeria, Kenya, and Lebanon, have high proportions of Catholics attending Mass weekly or more, with Nigeria leading at 94%. In contrast, countries like Germany, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands have less than 15% of Catholics attending Mass weekly.
The number of permanent deacons saw little change, with a gain of 541 worldwide, totaling 49,176. Europe and the Americas recorded the most substantial gains, with 150 and 139 additional permanent deacons, respectively.
In contrast, the number of male religious decreased by nearly 800 globally, primarily due to losses in Europe, the Americas, and Oceania, partially offset by a gain of 205 religious men in Africa.
The situation for women religious was more challenging, with a decline of 10,588 during the study period. Europe experienced a significant loss of over 7,800 religious women, while the Americas also saw a reduction of more than 5,000. In contrast, Africa gained over 2,000 religious women.
The data indicates variations in the number of lay missionaries and catechists across continents. The Americas experienced a significant drop of almost 4,000, while Africa and Europe saw modest gains, and Asia recorded a more substantial gain of nearly 670.
When it comes to major seminarians, Africa was the only continent that registered an increase, with a net gain of 187. Africa also had the highest number of major seminarians overall, totaling nearly 34,000. In contrast, Asia, Europe, and the Americas experienced triple-digit losses, while Oceania’s numbers remained relatively stable. Overall, the number of major seminarians worldwide decreased by nearly 2,000 to around 110,000.
However, the total number of minor seminarians saw a global increase, with a gain of over 300, reaching 95,714. Africa led with a gain of more than 2,000, while Asia experienced the most substantial loss, with 1,216 fewer minor seminarians.
The Catholic Church operates a significant number of educational institutions and healthcare facilities worldwide. There are over 74,000 kindergartens, nearly 101,000 Catholic primary schools, and 50,000 secondary schools. The Church serves around 2.5 million Catholic high school students and 4 million university students.
Africa holds the highest number of infant pupils, Catholic primary schools, primary school students, and Catholic secondary schools. It ranks third in terms of secondary school students, following Europe and Asia. The Americas have the largest number of university students in Catholic schools, representing over half of all Catholic university students worldwide. Asia leads in the number of Catholic high school students, with 1.3 million.
Additionally, the Catholic Church operates 5,405 hospitals worldwide, along with 15,276 homes for the elderly and needy, and 9,703 orphanages, with Asia hosting the largest share of orphanages.