Bishop Sithembele Sipuka, the president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC), made a startling remark following the body’s ad limina visit to Rome.
In a July 3 letter, the bishop said that the most important meeting of the June 12-17 visit was an encounter with officials at the Dicastery for Evangelization’s Section for the First Evangelization and New Particular Churches, formerly known as the Congregation for the Evangelization of the Peoples.
“This is the Dicastery that facilitates the establishment and growth of the Church in mission areas like ours, the appointment of bishops, guidance and assistance on the training of priests, procurement of missionaries, assistance with funds to help run the dioceses, processing of issues related to priests and bishops, etc,” wrote the Bishop of Umtata, South Africa.
“One major point of discussion was the issue of the growing inability of this Dicastery to provide financial and material assistance to mission areas like ours as well as the need for reporting for project funds received.”
“We left the meeting with a heightened awareness of the need to beef up the self-sustenance drive in our Conference because the overseas coffers from which we traditionally got support are on the verge of drying up.”
Existing to evangelize
Sipuka’s comments are likely to set alarm bells ringing as helping to sustain the mission territories is one of the Vatican’s core responsibilities.
In his 1975 encyclical Evangelii nuntiandi, Pope Paul VI famously said that the Church “exists in order to evangelize.” Pope Francis has also repeatedly underlined the importance of evangelization, calling for a “missionary conversion” in his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium.
The signature feature of Francis’ reform of the Roman Curia was the creation of the new Dicastery for Evangelization, listed first among Vatican departments in the 2022 apostolic constitution Praedicate evangelium and led directly by the pope.
The Dicastery for Evangelization combined the previous Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization with the Congregation for the Evangelization of the Peoples.
But despite their common focus on evangelization, the two bodies were quite disparate. The pontifical council was a relatively minor Vatican department only created in 2010.
The congregation was a powerful body dating back to 1622, when it was established as the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Propaganda Fide).
The congregation’s areas of responsibility were so vast and its autonomy so significant that the cardinal who led the congregation was known as the “red pope.” It sustained its work through what Vatican News described in 2021 as “the vastness of its material patrimony — especially real estate.”
In 2022, the newly established Dicastery for Evangelization was responsible for 1,118 ecclesiastical circumscriptions (dioceses and other kinds of communities under a bishop’s authority). Almost half (518) were in Africa, 483 in Asia, 71 in the Americas, and 46 in Oceania.
A shrinking budget
Why is the dicastery displaying a “growing inability” to offer “financial and material assistance to mission areas”?
The most obvious answer is due to the Vatican’s generally (but not wholly) bleak financial situation. Yet it’s not totally clear why this should be specifically affecting the Dicastery for Evangelization to such a degree.
The Congregation for the Evangelization of the Peoples had an official budget of 25 million euros (around $27.2 million) in 2021. Its 2022 budget was 21 million euros (roughly $22.9 million), a drop of 16%.
In both years, it had the second-highest budget of any Vatican department after the Dicastery for Communication, which had a sum of 38 million euros in 2022 (about $41.3 million).
Mission without money
But the budget figures are only part of the story. The Dicastery for Evangelization appears to have had a somewhat rocky start since the publication of Praedicate evangelium.
For a while, doubt hung over whether Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of the Peoples, was actually the head of the new dicastery’s Section for the First Evangelization, as most observers assumed. The uncertainty was only resolved with a March decree affirming Tagle’s position and powers.
More than a year after the Vatican’s new constitution was released, the Dicastery for Evangelization has no unified website — a small but possibly telling indication that it may be struggling to embrace its new identity.
The dicastery’s growing pains are not trivial given its mission to serve “the work of evangelization, so that Christ, the light of the nations, may be known and witnessed to by word and deed, and the Church, his mystical Body, may be built up.”
The number of baptized Catholics worldwide grew from 1.36 billion in 2020 to almost 1.38 billion in 2021, the last year for which figures are available. That was a change of 1.3% — slightly less than the planet’s overall population growth of 1.6%. This suggests that the Church’s continued growth is due to favorable demographics rather than vigorous evangelization.
While many Catholic missions have flourished on the thinnest of shoestring budgets, they need to be adequately funded if the worldwide Church wants to do more than simply grow modestly as a result of the planet’s rising population.