He was not pleased. A pastor from a large Southern city called me on the morning that USA Today published a story on the decline of Catholic numbers in the Northeast. The article did not say that this is a national trend, but neither did it mention Catholic advances elsewhere in the country.
“We cannot build churches fast enough!” this priest said of his diocese. He said that his parish receives a number of inquiries from people wishing to enter the Church.
I replied that my hunch was that the reporter concentrated on New York because the pope had visited that city. Unimpressed, the priest said that the story of flourishing Catholicism in the U.S. needs to be told.
It was a good point. The Church in the South and the Southwest is booming. The days when Catholics were few and far between south of the Mason-Dixon Line are long gone.
When the Archdiocese of Atlanta was created 50 years ago, only about 50,000 Catholics lived within its borders. Today, the archdiocese reports 1 million Catholics. In 1971, the Diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina, was formed to serve 35,000 Catholics. Today, it lists 235,000 Catholics on its rolls.
This expansion is typical from the Atlantic to the Pacific in the South and Southwest.
The arrival of Catholic immigrants from Latin America accounts for much growth but not for all of it by any means. The heavy migration of Catholics into the South and Southwest from New England and the Midwest is swelling the numbers very much.
Why is the Church growing amid all this movement? Catholics coming from Latin America obviously bring with them centuries of Catholic identity, and many want to retain this part of their lives. Catholics moving to the South from other parts of the United States find in the local church familiar opportunities for spiritual refreshment.
Conversions to Catholicism account for a story in itself. They are considerable.
All this growth itself adds a spark to Church life.
In Nashville, Tennessee, in the past five years, three new parishes have been established. Each new parish already is in its own church. Two of these churches seat more than 1,500 people. Adjacent to each church is ample space for classrooms, meetings and so forth.
The parishes built nothing. They simply bought existing facilities from Protestant congregations that were closing. Losses of these Protestant communities are part of a pattern in this country — and in Europe, for that matter. The so-called “mainline” Protestant congregations are not doing well.
As the Catholic Church grows in some parts of the country, slippage among historic Protestant communities, the decline in New England and parts of the Midwest, and the widespread indifference to institutional religion among youth suggest that organized religion in America tomorrow may be different from what it has been.
American culture is disowning religion. It will affect the South and Southwest one day.
Will the future Catholic Church appeal to youth or to most Catholic immigrants coming into this country?
Today, families whose ancestors came into the South and Southwest even a century and a half ago still bear names that reveal their French, Irish, Italian and Spanish heritages, but so very many of these families have no connection with the Catholic Church at all, and any tie with the Church was lost generations ago.
Why? When the ancestors first arrived, they found no church, no priest, no sacraments, and if they found an existing parish, they were not welcomed. Not surprisingly, they fell away.
We cannot repeat the past.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.