Catholic parishes flourish in Southern U.S.

The Catholic Church in the southern U.S. is flourishing and growing at an impressive rate. But its rebirth in the historical Protestant Bible Belt is not only about numbers in the pews, but the creation of a Catholic culture and a strict adherence to Catholic teachings, says a report by journalist Tim Padgett. 

Catholics make up about 12 percent of the South’s population. While still quite low, Catholics saw growth of almost 30 percent in the 1990s, compared with less than 10 percent for Baptists, who make up the area’s largest denomination. Reported Padgett.

Padgett notes that Catholic Church was present in the south before the Civil War, but it virtually disappeared after the war. It aided the civil rights movement, but its numbers didn’t rebound until the 1980s, when northerners moved south chasing jobs in the technological industries and Hispanics immigrated to the area.  From 1980 to 2000, the region’s Catholic population doubled, to more than 12 million.

Hispanic immigrants are the fastest-growing group in the south. In the Diocese of Charlotte, for example, Hispanics make up half the diocese’s 300,000 Catholics. Thousands of Vietnamese and Filipino Catholics are moving in as well.

The Catholic population in Charlotte is growing almost 10 percent a year, and the ratio of newly ordained priests to parishioners there is 1 to 7,000, more than seven times as high as Chicago’s.

St. Mark Parish in the Diocese of Charlotte, for example, which began with a handful of Catholic families eight years ago, now has 2,800 families and is awaiting the completion of its new church. Bishop Jugis blessed five new churches in the diocese last year alone.

Southern dioceses like Charlotte boast some of the highest numbers of priestly ordinations in the U.S. and attract clergy from the North.

Fr. Timothy Reid, 34, an Indiana native who serves as vicar at St. Mark Parish in Charlotte told Padgett he was drawn to the South and its orthodox spirit. “Here it’s more vibrant because we’re creating a Catholic culture almost from scratch,” he was quoted as saying.

Padgett reports that these southern Catholics, “influenced in no small degree by their morally hard-line Protestant neighbors, as well as the strong piety of Latin America,” are practicing a more conservative faith than Catholics in many other parts of the U.S.

Fr. Jay Scott Newman, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greenville, South Carolina, told Padgett that the Protestant influence has also led to something he calls “evangelical Catholicism,” which includes exuberant hymn singing, intense Bible study, spirited preaching and witnessing.

He also says cultural Catholics are not common in the south. “Here you’re not Catholic because your parents came from Italy or Slovakia. It’s because you believe what the church teaches you is absolutely true,” he was quoted as saying.

There is also a rising number of native converts. The adult catechumen class at Fr. Newman’s parish has more than 60 members compared with only a few less than 10 years ago. 

Deacon Carlos Medina, 55, who arrived 10 years ago from Nicaragua told Padgett: “In 1983 U.S. bishops prophesied in a pastoral letter that Hispanic people would revive, maybe even save, the church in this country.”

“I think it came true,” he said.

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