Where Converts Are Made

With five exceptions, the 50 nations where the faith is spreading most rapidly are all located in Asia and Africa.

Among the most moving events in the annals of ecclesiastical history are mass conversions to the Catholic faith. In the seven years following the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe, eight million sought baptism in Mexico. Between 1542 and 1552, St. Francis Xavier converted an estimated 700,000 souls in modern-day India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Japan. Between 1610 and 1651, St. Peter Claver baptized some 300,000 slaves in Cartagena, Colombia.

In his 1990 encyclical on the permanent validity of the Church’s missionary mandate, Pope John Paul II lamented, “The number of those who do not know Christ and do not belong to the Church is constantly on the increase. Indeed, since the end of the council it has almost doubled. When we consider this immense portion of humanity which is loved by the Father and for whom he sent his Son, the urgency of the Church’s mission is obvious.”

At the end of 2007, 1.15 billion people were Catholic, and approximately one billion were non-Catholic Christians. Of the world’s population of 6.7 billion, some 4.5 billion are non-Christians, including 1.4 billion Muslims, 900 million Hindus, and 400 million Buddhists. Most who enter the Church do so as young children. What the Church classifies as “infant baptisms”—the baptisms of those who have not yet attained the age of reason—totaled 57,388,685 between 2004 and 2007. “Adult baptisms” (the baptisms of those over the age of seven) during the same time period totaled 10,219,215, a figure that does not include previously baptized Christians who were received into the Church.

A CWR analysis of data in four recent editions of the Vatican’s statistical yearbook (the Secretariat of State’s Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae) found that one in 10 of adult baptisms between 2004 and 2007 took place in Brazil. Nearly half of adult baptisms took place in 10 nations: Brazil, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Korea, Mexico, the Philippines, Peru, Kenya, the United States, and Tanzania.

CWR also compared the number of adult baptisms to the total Catholic population in each nation and found that with five exceptions—the Pacific nations and territories of Palau, the Marshall Islands, Niue, the Cook Islands, and Kiribati—the 50 nations where the faith is spreading most rapidly are all located in Asia and Africa. Between 2004 and 2007, the dozen nations with the proportionally highest number of adult baptisms were Mongolia, Azerbaijan, Nepal, Turkmenistan, South Korea, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mozambique, Tajikistan, Ethiopia, and the Central African Republic. In a surprising number of these nations, bishops and missionaries told CWR that they do not engage in direct evangelization.


Until 1991, an absolutist Hindu monarchy in Nepal punished conversion— and attempts to convert others—with imprisonment. The monarchy was disbanded in 2008, and the new democratically elected Maoist government has transformed the feudal Hindu kingdom into a secular state that permits religious freedom.

The dawn of limited religious freedom in the 1990s allowed Nepal’s Catholics to open their first parish church in 1995. The impoverished nation of 26 million now has eight parishes, 24 seminarians, and nearly 7,000 Catholics, more than 1,000 of whom are recent adult converts.

“We are not actively involved in the work of conversion, believing as we do in the witness of deeds,” says Bishop Anthony Sharma, S.J., a Hindu convert to Catholicism who has guided the Church in Nepal since 1984. He told CWR, “Those who come to us do so voluntarily. They usually go through a two year catechumenate program. The reasons for the program are to know of their motives (are they seeking some form of material benefits, or are really serious about the desire?) and to prepare them well for reception into the Church.”

Although “we don’t use our schools to evangelize” non-Christians—catechism and Bible classes are required only for Christian students—those entering the Church are “impressed by our services in social and educational fields,” Bishop Sharma added. “Marriage preparation and our seriousness about its importance also become factors.”

“There are more Catholics marrying Hindus or Buddhists than Catholics marrying Catholics,” observes Chirendra Satyal, secretary of the nation’s Catholic Media Commission. “The converts can be spouses of Catholics.” Mr. Satyal, who comes from a Hindu family and attributes his conversion to the example of Jesuits and Missionaries of Charity, observes that “people also get influenced by experiencing healing of some sort—this is especially true of hill tribals.”

Canadian Jesuit missionary Father Bill Robins adds that “people gain little economically by becoming Catholics here. Direct evangelization, especially through charismatic prayer, is a significant factor.” Satyal, citing the charismatic movement Couples for Christ, concurs; lay movements, he says, “help people want to take” instructions in the faith.

Imagine the conversion of 6.7 million Americans in the space of four years. Something comparable has happened in recent years in South Korea, where the faith’s expansion has far exceeded that of other affluent nations. Nearly 10 percent of the nation’s 49 million citizens are now Catholic. The Koreans “are basically a religious people without a religion,” says Father Robert Pellini, a Maryknoll missionary who serves there. “They have a background in Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. This permeates the society.”

A recent study by Father Pius Kwak Seung-ryong, a dogmatic theology professor at the Catholic University of Daejeon, found that bishops emphasize mission and evangelization in their pastoral letters more than any other topic. Father Kwak wrote that “the Military Ordinariate said it would try to attain the goal of converting 25 percent [of some 600,000 soldiers] to Catholicism. The ordinariate wants all soldiers to know Christ, and has decided to place emphasis on the Mass, as the expression of the sacramental life, and the sacrament of matrimony.”

Many Korean Catholic lay people have collaborated with the bishops’ direction in this area. The Asian Catholic agency UCA News reported in June that “the Church’s rapid growth was due primarily to laypeople’s strong missionary spirit,” according to Father John Yang Hae-ryong, secretary of the Korean bishops’ evangelization committee. “This has been nurtured by small Christian communities, the Legion of Mary, Cursillo, Focolare, and other Church organizations.”

The example of the late Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, the staunch defender of human rights who led the Archdiocese of Seoul from 1968 to 1996, also “attracted many” to the faith, according to Father Pellini. He reports an even greater interest in the faith following Cardinal Kim’s death in February, when 400,000 mourners paid their respects.

South Korea’s low Sunday Mass attendance rate raises questions about the lasting efficacy of evangelization there. A 2004 study found that 23 percent of the nation’s Catholics attend Sunday Mass, while Father Pellini puts the figure at 30 percent.

Four ex-Communist nations—Mongolia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan—have tiny Catholic flocks that are attracting relatively high numbers of converts.

Of Mongolia’s 500 Catholics, 231 are adult converts who were baptized between 2004 and 2007. Three Scheut Missionaries entered the nation immediately after the advent of religious freedom in 1992, and there are now three parishes, including a cathedral dedicated in 2003. One of the original three missionaries—Bishop Wens Padilla, CICM—wrote last year, “Some people, including government officials, wonder and question our motives. They ask: Why is the Church’s membership growing and are its activities expanding? What are these foreign missionaries of many nationalities up to as they carry on with their humanitarian and charitable works?… At times, every day feels like a struggle. But we are ever grateful that Providence is always on our side.”

The 300 Catholics of the largely Islamic former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan include 56 adults—young and old—who received baptism between 2004 and 2007. A Polish priest began to minister in the nation in 1997 with the permission of his bishop, and in 2002, during Pope John Paul’s visit, the nation’s president gave the Church the land to build its first parish. The parish opened in 2008; its website’s apologetics page discusses the Trinity, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the immorality of homosexual behavior.

When Father Carlos Avila arrived in largely Islamic Tajikistan in 1996, only a few dozen Catholics had survived decades of Communist oppression and post-Soviet conflict. Today, he and four other Argentine Incarnate Word missionaries minister to 300 Catholics in three parishes. UCA News reported in 2008 that priests are not permitted to preach openly there; Father Avila, still the superior of the Church in the nation, in 2006 said that the Church has a disproportionately high number of young people and that many of the nation’s young Catholics first hear about the faith from their classmates.

Largely Muslim Turkmenistan—like Tajikistan, a secularist state—is one of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom, according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. The authoritarian government forbids all unregistered religious activity and has not permitted the Catholic Church to register because it requires heads of the nation’s religious bodies to be citizens. According to the commission, it is illegal for Catholics, as members of an unregistered religion, to practice their faith, import or disseminate religious literature, or evangelize. Father Andrzej Madej, a Polish priest who is superior of the Church in Turkmenistan, baptized his first convert in 2000. Today, the Church there numbers 100, with the Mass restricted to the nunciature’s chapel. “We did not come to take members from the Muslim community,” Father Madej told CWR. The adult conversions that take place there manifest “the mystery of God’s work in the world” and are att ributable to the Holy Spirit, he says.


The number of Catholics in Africa grew from two million in 1900 to 165 million at the end of 2007. “God bless those missionaries who spent themselves transmitt ing the faith to Africans,” says Florida-based Father Joseph Hebert, M.Afr., who spent 20 years in Nigeria as a missionary and has observed “a change of leadership taking place” as Africans take charge of missionary activities.

Father Hebert told CWR:

In some cases, the faithful placed more confi dence in those foreign missionaries than in their own indigenous priests and religious. As a whole, however, Africans are like all other people. They feel more at ease with their own kind. Their own are in a much bett er position to understand them, their problems, their mentalities, their needs, their weaknesses and strengths. A small example: At a meeting of priests—both foreign missionaries and indigenous priests—one of the local priests stood up to explain that when an elderly woman comes to the priest [and says] she is tormented by an evil spirit, the proper approach is to begin with this evil spirit and then proceed to the suff ering of this woman. We do not begin by preaching to her about imaginative dreams, hallucinations, superstitions, etc. We treat the problem as a real one.

The Church in Africa is growing most rapidly in Sierra Leone, which the United Nations Human Development Program deems the world’s least developed nation. The nation’s Catholic population grew from 43,000 in 1970 to 267,000 in 2007, including over 25,000 adult baptisms between 2004 and 2007. The rapid growth in the Catholic population in recent years followed a fratricidal 1991-2000 civil war that resulted in more than 50,000 deaths and drove one third of the nation’s six million people from their homes. “The entire history of the diocese was aff ected” by the war, Bishop George Biguzzi of Makeni said in 2007. “All our houses and churches were destroyed or looted. Tens of thousands of people were displaced, and many lost their lives.” As the Muslim majority seeks to build 3,000 mosques, “we too have to be just as active in presenting the true image of Jesus Christ.”

The Church is also growing rapidly in Burkina Faso, which received its fi rst missionaries in 1900 and now sends missionary priests to France, Italy, and other African nations. Catholics now make up 12 percent of the nation’s population, and 148,314 adults sought baptism between 2004 and 2007.

Father Theo Caerts, M.Afr. is stationed in Burkina Faso and is one of two provincials who oversee the work of 111 Missionaries of Africa in six West African nations. He told CWR that “the converts are usually not Muslims, because it is very difficult for a Muslim to convert to Christianity, even if he wishes to, because of family pressure. Once a Muslim, always a Muslim. The converts come most of the time from African traditional religion.”

Father Caerts added that, especially in the past, “the testimony of missionaries” led people to the faith. Today, converts are att racted as Christians work for “a better world of justice and peace. Also, Catholic schools and the Church’s social works play a big role in evangelization.” For the nation’s leading prelate—Archbishop Philippe Ouédraogo of Ouagadougou—evangelization is more direct. “We give thanks and put out into the deep,” he said last year. “We put out into the deep to proclaim the Good News…. Pray that our Christian communities may be ever more united, ever holier, and ever more missionary.”

The evangelization of Chad began in 1929, and Catholics have grown from 5 to 10 percent of the population in the past two decades, amid internal national conflicts and the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees from Darfur. Five of the nation’s eight bishops are missionaries from other nations, including two Italians, a Spaniard, a Frenchman, and a Canadian. The Church there now numbers 956,000, including more than 65,000 adults baptized between 2004 and 2007.

The nation’s leading prelate—Archbishop Matthias N’Gartéri Mayadi of N’Djaména—told a synod of bishops that there is

a Muslim Chad of the North confronted with a Christian Chad of the South…. Some of them are militant Muslims. It is they who speak and act; it is they who have money. They are bringing a new project for society which could be characterized as follows: replacing the French language by the Arab language, rejecting the secularism of the republic, adopting sharia. In this confrontation one can experience among the people of Chad a very strong movement of conversion towards Christianity. Conversion for many seems to give them extra dignity, identity, and cohesion. For us, these motivations must be made pure. The catechumenate of four years makes this possible.

Portuguese Jesuits began to evangelize Mozambique more than five centuries ago, but the Church’s mission suffered under anti-clerical periods of Portuguese colonialism and above all under the Communist rule that followed independence in 1975. After the Church brokered the end of a national civil war in 1992, it began to grow rapidly. The nation’s 4.6 million Catholics make up 23 percent of the nation’s population, and more than 290,000 adults were baptized between 2004 and 2007.

Because of the nation’s severe priest shortage—there is only one priest for every 7,800 Catholics—the evangelization of Mozambique is largely the work of the laity. Cardinal Alexandre José Maria dos Santos, who was ordained the nation’s first African priest in 1953 and was the nation’s leading prelate from 1975 to 2003, told a synod of bishops:

The mission we must face is important and urgent! With a reduced number of missionaries, foreign and native, the Church in Mozambique counts more strenuously upon the involvement of the laity, which since Vatican Council II has understood and assumed its evangelizing mission within the Church. It is through the “small Christian communities” that the Church in Mozambique has placed the pastoral priority … through the movements such as the Legion of Mary, a force of the apostolate of the laity, through the “commissions of the laity and of active families” in the parishes and in the communities, the laity is carrying forth a preponderant action within evangelization.

The Church is also growing in Ethiopia, which likewise suffered under a Communist dictatorship from 1974 to 1991. Christianity took deep root in the culture during the fourth century, though communion with the Holy See was ruptured after the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the other Oriental Orthodox Churches rejected the teaching of the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

St. Justin de Jacobis (1800-1860), an Italian Vincentian missionary bishop, attracted many converts and trained his seminarians in the Alexandrian Rite, which is used by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and predates the fifth-century schism. In time, the saint’s efforts led to the formal establishment of the Ethiopian Catholic Church, an Eastern Catholic Church with three eparchies (dioceses) in northern Ethiopia. Subsequent Italian missionary efforts of the 1930s led to the growth of the Latin Rite in the southern part of the country. Over 34,000 adults were baptized between 2004 and 2007, and today the Church in Ethiopia numbers 603,000— just 1 percent of the nation’s population.

Despite the 34,000 adult baptisms, Bishop Musie Ghebreghiorghis, who leads the central Ethiopian Eparchy of Emdibir, told CWR that from his vantage point

the Catholic Church in Ethiopia is not growing by any means…. Conversion from Islam is unthinkable. In some areas however there are nominal Christians who follow traditional religions, and these are the targets of evangelization. At times in these areas entire populations ask to become Catholics for one reason or another. In one instance I know over 500 people in a group decided to become Catholics and asked for a Catholic burial place and a chapel simply because they were conquered by the good example of some sister missionaries who worked night and day without any reservation for the well-being of the population. In some other areas it is Protestant sect groups that ask to be accepted in the Catholic Church as a group. This inflates the numbers of conversions, but it does not increase that much the number of Catholics, because in the rest of the country there are no conversions and no effort made for ecumenical reasons.

Rapid growth does not always imply healthy Catholic life. The growth of Catholicism in the Central African Republic—where Catholics number 948,000 (21 percent of the population), including nearly 47,000 adults baptized between 2004 and 2007—received scrutiny when Archbishop Paulin Pomodimo of Bangui, the nation’s leading prelate, resigned on May 26. The decision came on the heels of the May 16 resignation of 52-year-old Bishop François- Xavier Yombandje of Bossangoa, former president of the nation’s episcopal conference.

A Vatican investigation found that Archbishop Pomodimo adopted “a moral attitude which is not always in conformity with his commitments to follow Christ in chastity, poverty, and obedience.” The investigation, conducted by Archbishop Robert Sarah, the Guinea-born secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, concluded that many local priests have children. A local newspaper reported that in most dioceses and the majority of parishes, priests live with women and have children.

In an open letter to the nation’s clergy, Cardinal Ivan Dias, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, emphasized that “many bad things have been done to the Body of Christ through poor and scandalous comportments.”


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About J. J. Ziegler 62 Articles
J. J. Ziegler, who holds degrees in classics and sacred theology, writes from North Carolina.

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