A man told me that just after World War II, he refused a very attractive job offer in Atlanta because there were too few Catholics in the area. He would feel out of place, he said.
Only in 1956 did Atlanta become the center of a diocese serving north Georgia. When Blessed Pope John XXIII named Atlanta an archdiocese in 1962, plenty of people who follow such developments questioned that move, since Atlanta was home to so few Catholics.
It has changed. The number of Catholics throughout the South and Southwest has surged. Since 1962, 22 new dioceses have come into being in the South, among them Brownsville, Texas, in 1965, Orlando and St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1968, Memphis, Tenn., in 1970, Biloxi, Miss., Houma-Thibodaux, La., in 1977, Knoxville, Tenn., in 1988, and Laredo, Texas, in 2000.
Four new provinces were founded: Miami in 1968; Oklahoma City in 1972; Mobile, Ala., in 1980; and Galveston-Houston in 2004.
Dozens upon dozens of parishes and many Catholic schools have been established. New parishes far outnumber older parishes that have been closed. Vocations, while not what they were 50 years ago, almost everywhere are up at a fairly good pace.
Certainly, strongly contributing to all this growth has been the migration of Catholics from other parts of the United States into the South and Southwest, along with the coming of many Catholics from Latin America and elsewhere.
However, to account for the growth only in terms of movement of Catholics into the area misses the bigger picture.
Conversions to Catholicism are an important element in the growth. Every Lent, the Rite for the Christian Initiation of Adults is under way. It is easy to track the numbers.
Last year, 2,082 joined the Church in the two Virginia dioceses with 662,000 Catholics on record. In Georgia, 1,559 entered the Church, where the overall Catholic number is 831,000. This year, Atlanta will welcome more than 2,000 new Catholics into the Church.
In the three Tennessee dioceses, 1,110 became Catholics, with a total Catholic population of 214,500. In Arkansas, 698 joined the Church to make a total population of 121,748. Mississippi’s two dioceses had 1,254 converts, and a total of 108,342 Catholics.
This is the important point. Adult conversions in the South and Southwest are at a much better rate per capita than in some places in which the Church is more entrenched.
Why? Associating with an institutional religion still is very important in the South and Southwest. True, a number of Catholics, and many Protestants, are inactive, but churchgoing still is an ideal. Churches and traditional religious values are highly regarded.
Being a minority, except in Louisiana and parts of Texas, also may have an effect on Catholics. They have to explain their beliefs.
In the process, many convince themselves of the truth of Church teachings, but also of the value of living strongly Catholic lives.
In many places, Catholic schools and hospitals have set, and still set, a marvelous example of genuine Christian caring.
In addition, many Catholic newcomers, from other places in America or beyond, deeply within themselves find in Catholic churches something familiar and reassuring.
Still, there are clouds among the sunbeams. Many Catholics coming to these places simply forsake the faith or become lax in practice.
It prompts the question of what religion actually means. Why is it important? Why is being part of the Catholic Church important? What are the alternatives?
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.