The Church Finds Growth—and Growing Pains—in the South
CINCINNATI—Catholics in the South are now a lot less lonely. Over the last 50 years, the greatest
regional growth of the Catholic Church has been in the South. While downsizing is the trend in the
Northeast and Midwest—closing parishes, reducing the number of Masses, curtailing services—the
South has problems of growth—parishes to form and churches to build, increasing outreach services,
dealing with new immigrants to this country.
An article in the May issue of St. Anthony Messenger, “The Church in the South: Growing
Pains,” by the magazine’s managing editor, Barbara Beckwith, examines this phenomenon.
After April 20, the article will be posted at: AmericanCatholic.org.
“Besides the institutional problems growth presents, having more Catholics in the South is a
people problem: While hospitality is a virtue that defines the region, newcomers bring different ways
of doing things, besides bringing different foods to church suppers,” Beckwith says.
The growth of the Church in the South has been amazing, but not even. Most Southern states used to
have a very small percentage of Catholics. But between 1966 and 2006, Georgia, North Carolina and South
Carolina saw both the number and the percentage of Catholics in the general population double or triple.
During that time, Georgia, for instance, went from 79,842 Catholics (1.93 percent of the population)
to 441,749 (5.1 percent). While the percentage of Catholics in Florida increased only slightly from
11.9 to 12.7, the number of Catholics went from 621,057 to 2,265,450. In the Diocese of Raleigh, North
Carolina, over 95 percent of its Catholics were not born in that state.
Beckwith ascribes this growth to a number of converging factors: migration from the Rust Belt to the
Sun Belt for jobs, retirees in search of more reliable sunshine and Hispanic immigration.
“Because all of this is happening in a post-Vatican II Church, the growth has a different look,
with more lay leadership at the forefront,” says Beckwith. Traditionally, the Southern Church
depended on Irish clergy, but that’s no longer possible. There are few priests now and fewer
predicted for the future.
Sidebars in the article highlight the roles of the Catholic Extension Society in supporting the Church
in underserved areas and the Glenmary Research Center in collecting Catholic statistics.
“The South is more than an area bound together by Winn-Dixie grocery stories,” one Southerner
told Beckwith. It presents a counter-value system to the dominant culture, chief among these being
family and comity (harmonious social relations), according to retired Bishop William B. Friend of Shreveport,
Louisiana, and Jon W. Anderson of The Catholic University of America, editors of The Culture of
Bible-Belt Catholics (Paulist Press, 1995).
For Southern Catholics, the overriding sense is of being a minority (Catholic) within a minority (Southern). “The
Southern Baptist religious tradition remains in the majority and helps to set the tone in many Southern
towns and cities,” Bishop Friend says.
Beckwith uses the experiences of two Southern monsignors to illustrate what’s different between
the old and new South for Catholics: Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor and
a native of Nashville, Tennessee, now living in Huntington, Indiana, and Msgr. Patrick Bishop, a Marietta,
Georgia, native and now pastor of Transfiguration Parish there.
Both agree with Bishop Friend that family and comity are key in the South. Msgr. Campion thinks the
Catholic growth has been easier in areas with longtime Catholic institutions like hospitals. For Msgr.
Bishop, whose little parish of 45 families in 1977 has grown to a mega-church of 4,444 families today, “Impersonalization
is the devil we don’t want to deal with here.”
Now the Southern Catholic Church is learning Spanish and celebrating quinceñeras (a
young woman’s 15th birthday). Beckwith concludes, “Maintaining the small-town friendliness
and traditional family-centeredness will be essential for the future of the Church in the South.”
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