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Welcome to the 2020s: What Catholics can expect in the next decade

More Catholics, more saints, more popular piety – but more persecution of Christians

What will happen to the Church in the coming decade? Only God knows, but it’s still worth considering what may lie ahead in the 2020s. Here are 10 things that might happen in the next 10 years – some more likely than others.

Demographic change

If current trends continue, the Church will grow by roughly 15 million souls a year, taking the total number of Catholics beyond the 1.4 billion mark by the end of the 2020s (the highest figure in history). Most of the growth will be in Africa and Latin America, with some two million more Catholics each year in Asia. The table of the top 10 countries with the most Catholics is likely to change. The Democratic Republic of Congo, currently 10th, is likely to rise up the rankings, while Italy, France and Spain slip down.

Meanwhile, the Church in the Amazon region will begin implementing the recommendations of last October’s synod of bishops. The synod proposed radical measures such as ordaining married deacons to the priesthood in order to provide the sacraments to far-flung communities. The wider Church will be watching closely to see whether Catholicism can stage a comeback in a territory where it has lost much ground.

Rising anti-Christian persecution

According to the charity Open Doors, each year around 4,000 Christians are murdered for their faith, 2,600 are detained without trial and 1,200 church buildings are attacked. There is, sadly, no reason to think this will change. Indeed, these figures may rise if (as seems likely) global instability increases. Given their lack of powerful defenders, Christian minorities from Egypt to Indonesia will continue to suffer persecution, ranging from petty discrimination to lethal violence. Expect religious freedom to shrink further in China and India, the world’s most populous nations.

A revival of popular piety

On March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, the bishops will re-dedicate England as the Dowry of Mary. This act is a consequence of an upsurge in Marian piety since the turn of the millennium, seen in the various “Rosary on the Coast” events organised around the world.

According to the United Nations, one in every three travellers is a pilgrim, and each year some 20 million people visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, six million head to Lourdes and 300,000 walk the Camino. These numbers may rise in the next 10 years.

Growth of the Extraordinary Form

While figures are hard to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests that the Extraordinary Form of the Mass has grown in popularity, notably among millennials, since Benedict XVI liberated it with the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum in 2007. In the United States, there were 220 regular traditional Latin Masses in 2006. By 2016, this had increased to roughly 450. Several religious communities that celebrate the Old Mass appear to be flourishing. Devotees will remain a minority but may become increasingly influential over the next decade.

Papal visits to the world’s hotspots

Pope Francis is eager to visit some of the world’s most strife-torn nations. He opened the Year of Mercy in 2015, for example, in the Central African Republic. In 2020, he hopes to visit South Sudan, a nation that has known nothing but conflict since its birth in 2011. He may also make a long-awaited trip to Iraq, conditions permitting. Other potentially perilous papal destinations include Venezuela, Pakistan and perhaps even North Korea. Safer ports of call in 2020 are expected to include Cyprus and Montenegro. There is one nation he seems unlikely to visit: his homeland, Argentina, which he hasn’t returned to since his election in 2013.

Diplomatic developments with China

The chances of a papal visit to China are currently slim. It’s likely that the Holy See would have to establish full diplomatic relations with Beijing first. That prospect seems years away, even though the two states signed a historic provisional agreement in 2018. There are many obstacles, including the status of Taiwan, which the Holy See continues to recognise. But it is not impossible that such difficulties will be resolved in the next 10 years.

A papal transition

Given their reverence for the Holy Father, most Catholics would prefer not to think about the next conclave. But there will be one, of course, and it may well take place this decade. It is impossible to predict the outcome, but the event would have profound consequences for the whole Church.

If nothing else, expect more discussion of the conclave in the coming years, especially given papabile Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle’s transfer from Manila to Rome.

Vatican financial crisis

Meanwhile, the Vatican faces a grave test of its financial integrity. This year Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s money laundering watchdog, will publish a highly anticipated report on the Holy See’s progress. Moneyval may conclude that the Vatican has failed to take adequate steps to prosecute those suspected of money laundering, as it requested in its 2017 report. A negative verdict would reinforce the impression that the Vatican has failed to clean up the financial scandals that have dogged it for the past 40 years.

More abuse revelations

Another scandal will, unfortunately, stretch on into this decade: clerical abuse. This has already devastated the Church in Europe and North America. In the 2020s, disturbing new revelations are likely to emerge from Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Pope Francis has given the Church powerful new tools to respond to the looming crisis in these continents, including the motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi, which in theory holds bishops accountable for cover-ups. But Church leaders appear hesitant to use these new mechanisms, preferring older, less effective ones. This is unlikely to change without considerable lay pressure.

New saints

This decade should see a host of new saints. It’s difficult to forecast the progress of Causes as they are dependent on miraculous healings. But those who could be canonised in the 2020s include Blesseds Charles de Foucauld (d 1916), Pier Giorgio Frassati (d 1925), Cyprian Tansi (d 1964), Jerzy Popiełuszko (d 1984), Chiara Badano (d 1990) and the Tibhirine monks (d 1996), as well as the Venerables Augustus Tolton (d 1897) and Cardinal Nguyễn Văn Thuận (d 2002).

Other Causes worth keeping an eye on are those of John Bradburne (d 1979), Dorothy Day (d 1980), 15-year-old computer expert Carlo Acutis (d 2006) and 21st-century Iraqi martyrs such as Ragheed Ghanni (d 2007).

Any developments in these Causes will prompt rejoicing throughout the Catholic world and remind us that, however daunting the road ahead, there are always saints among us.

Luke Coppen is editor of the Catholic Herald