VATICAN CITY — Africa is the Catholic Church's region of biggest growth, with rising numbers of faithful, clergy and religious orders, according to Vatican statistics. The church's growth in the Americas has largely stalled, meanwhile, and Europe's share of the world's largest church continues to decline.

Bishop Cornelius Korir of Eldorest, Kenya (Photos: Ben Curtis, AP)
The findings appeared in the May 18 issue of the official Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, in an article summarizing the new edition of the church's statistical yearbook, which features a survey of worldwide Catholicism in the period 2000-2006.

Though the world's proportion of baptized Catholics remained roughly the same over the seven-year period, amounting to 17.3% of the world's 1.1 billion people in 2006, its geographical distribution shifted markedly.

The most notable change was in Africa, whose share of the worldwide church rose from 12.4% to 14%. Even more dramatic was the increase in church personnel there. While the world total of Catholic priests barely increased, and the number of female religious actually fell, the church in Africa reported nearly a quarter more priests and almost one-sixth more nuns after seven years.

The Western Hemisphere held steady with about half of the world's Catholics and 30% of its priests. Asia's share of the world's Catholic population also remained unchanged at 10%, yet the continent produced an increasing share of the world's priests and nuns.

The church continued to shrink in its traditional heartland, Europe, whose portion of the world's Catholics fell from 26.8% to 25%, and where the number of priests declined by nearly 6%.

In an indication of future trends, fewer than one-fifth of all men preparing for the Catholic priesthood were studying at European seminaries at the end of 2006, the study showed, down from nearly a quarter in 2000,