On Monday, figures released by the Holy See show an increase in the number of Catholics around the world in excess of the increase in the overall world population.
   Consequently, in 1997 there were 17.3 baptised Catholics for every 100 people in the world; by the end of 1998 that figure was 17.4.
   Nearly half of the world's Catholics now live in the Western hemisphere. Latin America accounts for 30% of the world Catholic population, and North America another 15%. Europe also accounts for nearly 30%, and Africa 12%.
   Asia, by far the world's most populous continent, boasts only 12% of the Catholic population-- with most of those Catholics concentrated in the southeast of Asia. And Oceania accounts for the remaining 1% of the world's baptized Catholics.
   These figures show a few distinct changes over the past two decades. In 1978, Catholics were more numerous in Europe, and distinctly less numerous in Africa and Asia. The number of Catholic bishops has soared during that same time span. In 1978 there were 3,714 bishops; today there are 4,439. The bulk of that increase can be attributed to Africa.
   The number of priests, on the other hand, has decreased since 1978 - especially in Europe and North America. For the world as a whole, the number of priests has declined from 420,971 to 404,626. Most of that decline came in the religious orders, which accounted for 158,486 priests in 1978 and 140,424 today. In fact, the number of diocesan priests has increased slight in the 20-year period: from 262,485 to 264,202.
   A closer look at those numbers shows a particularly lively growth in priestly vocations in Africa.
   The decline in the number of priests may soon be reversed, however, because the number of seminarians is much larger today than it was in 1978 - 109,171 as opposed to 62,670. Again, the growth is most visible in Africa, with Latin America trailing not too far behind.


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