Comment Opinion & Features

Burma, not Belgium, is the future of the Church

(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Which country produces the most priests relative to the size of its Catholic population? Is it Brazil, the powerhouse of Latin American Catholicism? Perhaps the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with its fast-growing Church? Or maybe the steadfastly Catholic Philippines?

The answer is: none of these. The nation supplying the most priests per Catholic in the world is, surprisingly, Burma (Myanmar). That is the conclusion of a compelling new study by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).

The researchers do not speculate on why the overwhelmingly Buddhist Burma is such a hotbed of priestly vocations. There are only 750,000 Catholics in the country – one per cent of the population. But the Church is led by a dynamic figure: Cardinal Charles Maung Bo. He has a clear vision of the Church as a mediating force between the Buddhist majority and beleaguered minorities. Perhaps his example is inspiring other Burmese Catholic men to devote their lives to the Church.

CARA found that after Burma, the country with the next highest ratio of new priests to Catholics was Thailand (another majority Buddhist nation), followed by Togo, Vietnam and Bangladesh. In other words, four out of the top five countries are Asian and one African.

This is unexpected because we are not used to thinking of Catholicism as an Asian phenomenon. We tend to regard it as European, Latin American and African. After all, just three per cent of Asians are Catholic and only two of Asia’s 48 countries are majority Catholic: the Philippines and East Timor.

But in the coming centuries the overall picture may change. Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila once revealed that Pope Francis had told him that “the future of the Church is in Asia”. It is conceivable that this century might see an Asian pope. Just last Saturday, the Dominican order elected the first Asian leader in its 800-year history, the Filipino Fr Gerard Timoner. Already countries with sizeable Catholic minorities such as India and South Korea are sending ample numbers of missionaries abroad. Perhaps in future, supply priests in Western parishes will be just as likely to come from Asia as from Africa.

How did countries closer to home fare in the CARA study? The United States came in 50th place out of 108. One place higher, in 49th, was Great Britain (defined as England, Wales and Scotland). Both countries were far ahead of traditionally Catholic nations such as Spain (73rd), Germany (75th), Ireland (including Northern Ireland, 78th), Argentina (98th) and France (99th). Bottom of the table was the once solidly Catholic Belgium.

CARA based the rankings on the most recent figures for priestly ordinations (for 2015, 2016 and 2017) and Catholic population data for 2017 from the Vatican’s Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae. In order to avoid skewed results, researchers only included countries that had at least 100,000 Catholics, at least nine ordinations in 2015-2017 and a minimum of one ordination in each of the three years studied. If they had removed the 100,000 Catholics requirement, then tiny Nepal would have come first. Other nations such as Samoa, Niger, Liechtenstein, Denmark, Kosovo, Kiribati and Fiji would also have featured prominently. But CARA argued that these countries’ high new priests to Catholic population ratios were partly a result of having minuscule Catholic populations.

The new study offers only a rough measure of the vitality of national churches. The Philippines, for example, ranks 95th out of the 108 nations. Yet it is one of the liveliest churches in the world, hosting mind-bogglingly large outdoor Masses, sending countless missionaries abroad and producing
leaders of global stature such as Cardinal Tagle.

Still, the CARA rankings allow us to compare the relative health of Catholicism across the world (albeit cautiously). They tell us something important: that parts of the Church in Asia are flourishing beyond all expectation. We need to understand why Burma, Thailand, Vietnam and the like are able to produce such an abundance of priestly vocations despite small numbers. Is being a tiny minority actually an advantage? Does this bind the members of the Church together and give them an urgent sense of mission that is lacking in Catholic majority countries?

We can only speculate. But thanks to the CARA study, we do at least know a little more about the global Church than we did before.