Despite the exhaustive efforts of missionaries in the preceding centuries, at the beginning of the twentieth century only about five percent of Catholics worldwide hailed from Asia. As the figure to the right portrays, in 1910 the vast majority of Catholics lived in the West, with Europe alone accounting for over 65 percent of adherents.
One hundred years later, the statistics indicate a Catholic population that is dramatically more dispersed. As of 2010, Asia was home to over 130 million Catholics–12 percent of the global population and ten times the number from 1910. At the same time, Europe, formerly the bastion of Catholicism, accounted for less than a quarter of the world’s Catholic population.
These figures reveal an increasingly apparent dichotomy within Catholicism as a whole. While traditionally Catholic areas in the West are turning their backs on the Faith in favor of secularism, the regions of the world most recently exposed to Catholicism are embracing it. Asia is a prime example of this latter trend, a fact recently confirmed in the latest issue of the Pontifical Yearbook issued each year by the Vatican. As reported by various Catholic media, “Catholicism is spreading faster in Asia and Africa than anywhere else in the world.” While the Faith in the West is “stagnating and even declining,” the number of Catholics in Asia increased a full 2 percent from 2010 to 2011. Similarly, the number of religious vocations on the continent has exploded, with the past ten years witnessing a “whopping” 44.9 percent increase consecrated religious and a 32 percent increase in priests.
Still, despite Catholicism’s steady growth in Asia, its numbers remain small relative to the continent as a whole. In total, Catholics compose just 3 percent of a continent home to almost two-thirds of the world’s population. This is quite obviously a far cry from the Church’s “universal” ideal. And beyond mere numbers, Catholicism in Asia has its own unique hopes and challenges, issues we’ll begin to explore in the next section.