The historic election of Pope Francis on Wednesday marked the first time that a pontifex has been selected from the Americas. The new Catholic leader, who hails from Argentina, brings into perspective the church’s stunning demographic evolution over the past century.

While the church has experienced a decline in European adherents, growth continues to abound in Africa and Latin America. National Geographic published a series of graphics and statistics that show just how stark these transitions have been, specifically between 1900 and 2010.

Catholic Church Has Had Fascinating Demographic Transition Between 1900 and 2010

Argentina’s Jorge Bergoglio, elected Pope Francis I waves from the window of St Peter’s Basilica’s balcony after being elected the 266th pope of the Roman Catholic Church on March 13, 2013 at the Vatican. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

In 1900, clearly a reflection of its historical roots, nearly seven-in-10 Catholics (67 percent) across the globe resided in Europe. At the time, France, with 40 million followers, was the largest Catholic country. As National Geographic notes, 98 percent of its population were believers at the time. Additionally, nearly all of Spain’s and Italy’s adherents were Catholics.

See the graphic showing the church’s distribution in 1900:

Catholic Church Has Had Fascinating Demographic Transition Between 1900 and 2010

Photo Credit: National Geographic/Alexander Stegmail, Maggie Smith, NGM Staff

By the time 1970 rolled around, changes were already evident. Europe was still the global leader in terms of believers – but Latin America was catching up. At the time, Europe had decreased to comprising only 38 percent of the world’s Catholics (Latin America had about the same proportion of believers within its boundaries).

And according to National Geographic, the faith was already catching hold in sub-Saharan Africa as well.

The 1970 version of the map shows this continued evolution:

Catholic Church Has Had Fascinating Demographic Transition Between 1900 and 2010

Photo Credit: National Geographic/Alexander Stegmail, Maggie Smith, NGM Staff

But the changes didn’t end there. By 2010, the Catholic Church in Europe was anything but robust and healthy.

Latin America became the largest region embracing the religious construct, with 41 percent of global adherents residing within its boundaries (Europe accounted for just 24 percent – down from 67 percent in 1900). Africa, too, continued to grow in its Catholic numbers.

And, finally, here’s the 2010 map:

Catholic Church Has Had Fascinating Demographic Transition Between 1900 and 2010

Photo Credit: National Geographic/Alexander Stegmail, Maggie Smith, NGM Staff

It will be fascinating to see how Pope Francis contends with these changes – and whether he is successful in evangelizing Europe back into the Catholic faith.

(H/T: National Geographic)

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