A different Church

Photo: bubutu/Shutterstock.comPhoto: bubutu/Shutterstock.com

The Catholic Church has, over the last 100 years, undergone a complex shift in its population distribution and, consequently, its institutional identity and place in the world. This shift, largely driven by the institution’s response to mission and its understanding of Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19), has created a Church that is not only young, culturally diverse, and dynamic but also far from the traditional centres of imperial power and finance.

These complex and dramatic population shifts are one important key to understanding Pope Francis’ call to synodality, a process both as old as Tradition (Acts 3, 10,15) and as new as the ecclesial reality of our day. Indeed, understanding these shifts will help, as Pope Francis warned in October 2021, “to keep us from becoming a ‘museum church,’ beautiful but mute, with much past and little future”.

Over the same period, the global Catholic population has remained at about 17% (about one in every six) of the world’s population. These numbers easily support the claim that the Church is the single oldest and largest institution in the world. A reality that Peter and his companions could not have imagined when they tentatively walked down the stairs on that first Pentecost Sunday (Acts 2).

Nevertheless, behind these percentages lies a remarkable phenomenon - namely, the dramatic shift in the geographical distribution of the Catholic population, waning in Europe but exploding throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. For example, according to an article by BBC News in 2011, the Philippines is now the third-largest national Catholic population in the world, and there are more Christians (Catholic and Protestant) attending church on Sunday in China than in the whole of Europe.

In 1910, 65% of all Catholics lived in Europe. Currently, Europeans account for less than 24% of believers worldwide. Today, nearly 70% of Catholics live in what is often called the Global South, and of those, approximately 60% live on two continents south of the equator. Sub-Saharan Africa now has the world’s third-largest Catholic population (21%), after Central and Latin America (39%) and Europe (24%). In contrast, the geographically vast and ethnically and linguistically diverse region of Oceania, represents less than 1% of the global Catholic population.

Many commentators rightly draw attention to the dramatic increase in Korean Catholics, but the African story is even more impressive. By some estimates, the number of believers in Sub-Saharan Africa has grown by 6,000% in the last 100 years. In the year 2018–2019, for example, the number of Catholics in Africa increased by 8.3 million people. Currently, more than 170 million, about one in five or 21% of Sub-Saharan Africans are Catholic - a figure projected to double by 2050, according to an article by Tia Ghose published by LiveScience in May 2022.

As an interesting footnote, the Democratic Republic of Congo, with an estimated 31 million believers (47.3% of its total population), edges out Pope Francis’ home country, Argentina, as the tenth-largest Catholic population in the world.

In launching the synodal process, Pope Francis emphasised that “there is no need to create another church but to create a different church” (10 October 2021). Indeed, that different church is already reflected in the population shifts that have emerged because of missionary activity over the last 100 years. Contrary to the pessimism of secularity and generally outside the vision of the traditional hierarchical structure, which tends to be fixated on issues surfacing in the traditional centre (Europe, and latterly, North America), the Catholic Church, as an organisation, is not only very big - it is vibrant, culturally diverse, and successful as well.

Just imagine, for example, if bishops’ conferences worldwide were actively leading their flocks to live and act in solidarity with their brothers and sisters living on small Pacific Islands increasingly vulnerable to an unrelenting rise in sea levels.

It is no accident that the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere holds different agendas from some of his predecessors.

Francis invites the Church to listen to, not lecture, those on the periphery and reach out to the poor and marginalised. Francis calls this listening the “art of encounter”, a process ultimately guided by the Holy Spirit.

In its original Greek, the word “synod” means “walking together.” Savouring the vibrant diversity of the people of God is a crucial part of that encounter.

Knowing who we are walking beside is integral to renewing our ecclesial vision and sense of mission.

Columban Fr Patrick McMullan lives and works in Korea.

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