My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
As the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity begins on Wednesday, Jan. 18, it is helpful for us to take note of some trends about Christianity in the world. While the secular media often portray Christianity in an unfavorable light, there is much good news about the spread of Christianity in the world that you may not have heard about.
According to a report published last month by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Christians account for almost a third of the world's population. The data from the 2010 survey of more than 200 countries found that worldwide, there are 2.18 billion Christians, nearly a third of the estimated global population at that time of 6.9 billion.
The report looked at what has changed in the past century. Since 1910 the number of Christians nearly quadrupled, from about 600 million to more than 2 billion. Christians are the world's largest religious group. Muslims, according to previous studies by the Pew group, account for a bit under a quarter of the world's population.
The spread of countries reflects a major shift in where Christians are to be found. In 1910, about two-thirds of the world's Christians lived in Europe. A century later, only 26 percent of Christians live in Europe. More than a third are now found in the Americas — 37 percent — while just under a quarter — 24 percent — live in sub-Saharan Africa. The Asia-Pacific region accounts for 13 percent.
Taking Europe and the Americas together these two still make up a majority of Christians, with 63 percent. That is, however, a notable decline from the 1910 level of 93 percent. In both regions the numbers of Christians have dropped. In 1910, 95 percent of Europe's population was Christian, but by 2010 it was only 76 percent. In the Americas over the same period it went from 96 percent to 86 percent.
This decline contrasts with the dramatic change in sub-Saharan Africa. In 1910 only 9 percent were Christians, but a century later the Christian faith had exploded, making up 63 percent of the population.
There are 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide, according to the report. This means they account for half of the global Christian population.
The report gives a more precise idea of what observers have been commenting on in recent years regarding the shift of Christianity to the Global South. The rapid growth of Christians in Africa and China will likely continue, with significant implications for Christianity.
As we contemplate those implications, we must be mindful that one of the greatest challenges facing Christianity is the need to repair the divisions that currently separate Christians. Not only must Christians work for the continued spread of Christianity, but we must also seek to bring unity to Christianity.
In his homily for the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity given at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome on Jan. 25, 2009, the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, Pope Benedict XVI said, "St. Paul's conversion offers us the model and indicates to us the way towards full unity. Unity, in fact, requires conversion: from division to communion, from wounded unity to one that is healed and full. This conversion is a gift of the Risen Christ as it happened for St. Paul. ... The same Lord who called Saul on the road to Damascus addresses the members of his church which is one and holy and calling each one by name asks: why have you divided me? Why have you wounded the unity of my body? Conversion implies two dimensions. In the first step one knows and recognizes one's faults in the light of Christ, and this recognition becomes sorrow and contrition, the desire for a new beginning. In the second step one recognizes that this new journey cannot come from oneself. It consists in letting oneself be conquered by Christ. As St. Paul says: 'I am racing to grasp the prize if possible, since I have been grasped by Christ' (Phil 3: 12)."
May God give us this grace. Amen.