Arguably of all the 50 states, the one with the least Catholic institutional presence in its history, the fewest Catholics, was North Carolina. However, this particular aspect of Catholic history in the United States is rapidly changing. Even North Carolina's governor is a Catholic.
In early January, NC Catholic, the Diocese of Raleigh's monthly magazine, published an annual report of Church life in the eastern half of the state. The figures were fascinating, actually breathtaking in several cases.
North Carolina itself is booming. In the same period of 15 years, the state's population in the counties within the Diocese of Raleigh grew by 32 percent. The level of Catholic growth greatly exceeded the growth of the general population. Catholics now comprise 4.5 percent of the total population. Forty years ago, Catholics accounted for less than one percent.
The number of Catholics living in diocese now stands at 186,000. This figure represents an increase of 145 percent over 1990 figures.
Other figures are equally impressive. In the last year, the Raleigh diocese recorded more than 5,600 baptisms, versus about 1,600 baptisms in 1990. In 1990, there were 1,500 first Communions and 885 confirmations. Last year, there were 3,800 first Communions and 2,300 confirmations.
Catholic Social Ministries, the diocese's social-service agency, last year served more than 41,000 people with various needs, regardless of their ethnicity, religion or state in life.
Eastern North Carolina always has had excellent centers of higher education. Large institutions such as the University of North Carolina, North Carolina State University and Duke University are among the best schools in the world. The Church is visibly present on these campuses.
In addition, the Raleigh diocese is strengthening Catholic presence and ministry on the area's smaller college campuses.
Immigration by Catholics accounts for most of the Catholic growth. Parishes in Raleigh, the diocesan center and state capital, and throughout the area, are bursting at the seams, and in most cases the great majority of parishioners are not native to North Carolina.
North Carolina is very near the top of U.S. states with large rates of immigration from Latin America. The diocese is very alert to this fact. It maintains active Hispanic ministries across the diocese.
However, Spanish speakers are not the only Catholic arrivals by any means. And, it is not just immigration that is bolstering the Church's ranks. The number of adult converts is high, very high when compared against similar figures for dioceses in the East, New England and the Midwest.
I confess a special interest in the Raleigh diocese. I have known, and respected, Bishop F. Joseph Gossman for many years. The diocesan vicar general, Msgr. Michael Shugrue, is a seminary classmate whom I admire very much. Father Joseph Vetter, the former communications director, and I have been good friends for 30 years.
These relationships have taken me to Eastern North Carolina on occasion. I have seen the enthusiasm for the Church there, the confidence in religion and the pride in being Catholic, and openly Catholic. It is refreshing and inspiring. I wish we could package it and distribute it everywhere!
North Carolina's other diocese, Charlotte, has a wonderful story to tell as well. In many places, the Church is booming, and not just because of population shifts.
Regularly, some Our Sunday Visitor reader calls me, troubled about what is perceived to be a decline in Catholic identity or practice. I sympathize with the worry that the Church is losing ground.
Frankly, it is in some places. However, I always note that just the opposite applies in other places in the United States.
Don't believe me? Go to North Carolina!
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is associate publisher of OSV.