by Timothy Elphick
THE Catholic population of the world has soared by 200 million during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, according to figures released this week by the Vatican's Central Office for Church Statistics.
Catholics now number nearly one fifth of the world's total population. The figures from the Holy See for 1990, which are the latest available, reveal that there are 928.5 million Catholics worldwide.
But statistics also unveiled in Rome this week show that the growing Catholic population is posing a dilemma of gargantuan proportions for the Church, which is already struggling to find enough priests to meet the needs of parishes across the globe.
Although there was a slight rise in the number of ordinations in 1990, the first during the pontificate of John Paul H, the overall decline in the strength of the clergy and the rise in population has meant that there are now fewer priests for more Catholics. In 1990 there were
2,303 Catholics per priest, compared with just 1,834 at the time of the Pope's installation 13 years ago.
The Vatican figures showed that the steady increase in the number of men coming forward for ordination in Africa, Latin America and Asia has been more than offset by the vocations slump in Europe. Canada and the United States.
A sharp drop was recorded in the total number of religious women and brothers since 1979. The number of brothers fell by 16 per cent from 74,792 to 62,526; and women religious declined by 10 per cent from 984,782.
The release of this week's figures came just days after a petition signed by thousands of Catholics from across northern Europe calling on the Church to relax its rules on priestly celibacy was handed to the Vatican.
The petition, which was delivered to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as he left his Rome apartment on his way to work, demanded that the Church face up to the "pastoral state of emergency" caused by the shrinking number of priests worldwide.
"Many young people feel called to become priests but do not have the charism of celibacy," the letter said. It added that the crisis faced by dioceses trying to staff their parishes was a sign from God that the idea of a celibate clergy was "ripe for a change".
More than 62,000 Catholics signed the petition, which was organised by three laymen from Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands.
Priestly celibacy has once again been pushed to the forefront of Church debate by the recent admission of Bishop Eamon Casey of Galway that he had a 17-year old son living in the United States.
Advocates of a change in the rules on celibacy point to the increasing number of married Anglican ministers being ordained to the Catholic priesthood.
The Pope has consistently spoken of the positive value of celibacy for priests in the Latin-rite Church.