VATICAN CITY, MAY 10, 2004 ( The number of Catholics in the world is increasing, but their percentage has decreased slightly, according to newly released Church data.

The Statistical Yearbook of the Church for 2002, prepared by the Central Office of Church Statistics and just published by the Vatican press office, tracks data from the start of John Paul II's pontificate through 2002.

The yearbook indicates that the crisis of the dwindling ranks of diocesan priests has passed, but not the crisis of religious vocations.

The number of Catholic faithful rose from 757 million in 1978 to 1.07 billion at year-end 2002. By continent, the increase was 150% in Africa; 74% in Asia; 49% in Oceania; 45% in the Americas; and 5% in Europe.

Yet, the percentage of Catholics as a share of world population dropped. In 1978, 17.99% of the world's inhabitants were Catholic; in 1990, the tally was 17.68%; and in 2002, 17.2%.

Half the world's Catholics are in the Americas (49.9%); 26.15% in Europe; 12.84% in Africa; 10.3% in Asia; and 0.78% in Oceania.

The overall number of priests decreased 3.78%, from 420,971 in 1978, to 405,058 in 2002.

A closer study of the data reveals that the number of diocesan priests increased by 1.85%, to 267,334 from 262,485. The number of religious priests fell by 13.1%, to 137,724 from 158,486 in 1978.

Professed men religious (non-priests) plunged by 27.67%, from 75,802 in 1978 to 54,828 in 2002.

Professed women religious fell by 20.98%, from 990,768 to 782,932 in the same period.

Permanent deacons grew by 441%, as their ministry was reintroduced after the Second Vatican Council. In 1978 there were 5,562 permanent deacons; by 2002 they increased to 30,097.

The number of candidates to the priesthood (students of philosophy and theology), both in diocesan as well as in religious centers, soared from 63,882 in 1978 to 113,199 in 2002.

Of those, 65% are diocesan seminarians; 35% belong to religious congregations.