Sunday, January 22, 2012

It was a cold and rainy day in Rome when I got into a Taxi near the Lateran basilica in Rome when I was a doctoral student there. It was Lent. The taxi driver had a small pad of paper attached to the dashboard with a suction cup, and on a sheet of paper he had sketched – in ink – a beautiful and moving depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus. He could see from my collar and black suit that I was a priest. I asked him about the drawing. He told me that he didn’t go to church every week, but during Lent his prayer was to sketch the 14 Stations of the Cross while he waited in his taxi for the next fare. He told me that was how he prayed every day, throughout the day.

It’s not Lent, so why do I mention that?

In mid-December, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released their latest report on the world’s Christian population. It is entitled, “Global Christianity.” In the days prior to Christmas this was not covered much in the news, but where it was it was reported with astonishing incorrectness. The statistic that garnered the most attention was the following, taken from the report’s executive summary: “In 1910, about two-thirds of the world’s Christians lived in Europe, where the bulk of Christians had been for a millennium, according to historical estimates by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity. Today, only about a quarter of all Christians live in Europe (26%).”

So, in the past century, Europe’s share of the world’s Christians has declined from about 44% to about 26%. What does that mean? Not what you might think at first glance. It does not mean, for instance, that the Church in Europe is declining. One religion reporter got it right. From the Los Angeles Times: “In 1910, about two-thirds of Christians lived in Europe, where the majority had resided for a millennium. But as Christianity has grown in other parts of the world, the population has seen a shift.” Are there fewer Christians in Europe? No.

In fact, according to the Pew study and confirmed by other studies, there are more Christians (and Catholics) in Europe now than at any time in history. However, you won’t see that reported very much. Europe is seeing a large influx of non-Christian immigrants, and many of those populations have a higher birth rate than Christians (including Catholics). These trends combine to lower the percentage of Christians in the population, but not the number of Christians. The number of Christians has grown significantly.

Vatican statistics have also documented this. In 1900, 68% of the world’s Catholics resided in Europe. In 2009, this had fallen to just 24%. Again, what does this mean? Not what you might think! There are vastly more Catholics in the world today than there were in 1900, and Europe’s portion is proportionately smaller. Africa and South America contain the largest and fastest-growing numbers of Catholics today. However, there are still many more Catholics in Europe now than a century ago. According to Vatican statistics, Europe’s Catholic population has grown by 57% since 1900. 180 million Catholics then has become 284 million today.

Now, back to the Taxi in Rome. To be sure, fewer Catholics in Europe attend Mass regularly today than in decades past, and perhaps more Catholics consider themselves “culturally” Catholic but lack what we might perceive as a zealous faith. Don’t mis-read this as a lack of faith. Spend some time in a Roman Taxi and see someone with a lively spiritual life, even if he doesn’t show up in a study of regular church-goers.
Msgr. William J. King

No comments:

Post a Comment