In the past five years, the number of priests in Asia and Africa has increased, but their number worldwide has decreased, albeit by very little, this according to the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae (Statistical Yearbook of the Church).
The Central Office of Church Statistics looked at the evolution in the number of priests in the world between 2013 and 2018 and found slight drop of 0.3 per cent, to around 414,000. During that period, 43,000 new priests were ordained, half of whom in Africa and Asia, evenly split between the two continents.
The publication of the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae for 2018 makes it possible to see the demographic and statistical evolution of the clergy and local Churches between 2013 and 2018.
By looking at the geographic and functional distribution of priests (diocesan and religious), some interesting points of reflection emerge.
As noted, the total number of priests in the world decreased from 415,348 in 2013 to 414,065 in 2018, mostly in the latter part of the period. However, in Africa and Asia, the trend was positive, +14.3 per cent and + 11.0 per cent respectively, with a net gain of 2,200 priests in 2018 alone.
Conversely, in the Americas, the number did not change with around 122,000 priests. Europe and Oceania explain the worldwide drop, with a loss of more than 7 per cent and 1.1 per cent respectively.
In terms of type, the number of diocesan priests grew by more than 1,300 or 0.5 per cent whereas religious priests experienced a loss of 2,600 or almost 2 per cent.
Geographically, religious priests decreased in Europe (-8.3 per cent), Americas (-6.7 per cent) and Oceania (-3.1 per cent) and increased in Asia (+12,8 per cent) and Africa (+9.7 per cent).
The gain in the number of diocesan priests is attributable to the rapid expansion of the diocesan presence in Africa (+16.4 per cent), Asia (+10.8 per cent) and South America (+2.2 per cent), whilst Europe shows a clear drop (-6.7 per cent).
Despite its decline, from 44.3 per cent (184,000) in 2013 to 41,3 per cent in 2018, Europe still has the largest number of priests in the world. Africa and Asia instead gained ground, from 22.9 per cent in 2013 to 25.7 per cent in 2018. The Americas and Oceania remained stable at around 30 per cent and 1.1 per cent respectively.
In the 2013-2018 period, more than 43,000 priests were ordained, 28.3 per cent in the Americas, followed by Africa (25.5 per cent), Asia (25.2 per cent), Europe (20.3 per cent) and Oceania (0.7 per cent).
The drop in the number of priests between 2013 and 2018 is partly due to excess mortality. Nevertheless, in this period, there were 39,000 deaths in the world, 4,000 less than the number of ordinations.
In Europe, where the clergy is old, the number of deaths (23,365) far exceeded the number of new ordinations by almost 15,000. This decline was offset by gains in Asia, but especially Africa, where the average age of priests is lower. In the Americas, the demographic balance is almost in perfect parity.
In the period under review, mortality varied considerably. Africa, Central America, and South East Asia have similarly lower mortality rates than all the other areas.
Almost 6,000 priests left the priesthood in 2014-2018, mostly in the Americas and Europe (81 per cent), while the other areas saw fewer losses.
Finally, North and Central America, Europe and Oceania gained priests through immigration from other continents, whilst Africa, Asia and South America experienced a net loss due to outmigration.