Surge in the South

It no longer is news, but when it happens, people always are sad. I refer to the closing of parishes and the selling of churches in so many places. (If you think that it is bad for Catholics, look at the widespread abandonment of Protestant churches for want of worshippers.)

Well, it is not the experience throughout the entire United States. Two Southern dioceses, for example, are building cathedrals that, once completed, will be among the largest Catholic churches in the United States.

The Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina, is looking ahead to the dedication of what will be its magnificent Cathedral of the Holy Name of Jesus. Not far away, the Diocese of Knoxville, Tennessee, is putting the finishing touches on its new, very imposing Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

They will be religious landmarks in cities already with many churches, until now mostly Protestant.

The Knoxville cathedral already has made history. The governor of Tennessee, a Presbyterian, came from Nashville, the state capital, to see for himself the progress of construction. He saw that they had just placed the great dome on the new cathedral, surmounted by a gilded cross that can be seen for miles around. In Raleigh, the Stations of the Cross are being mounted, magnificent works of art, obtained from a Catholic church in Philadelphia that has been closed.

These cathedrals, when dedicated in the not-too-distant future, will make religious news, certainly because of their size and beauty, but this is the underlying story, and it is something to consider.

They are being built to accommodate great numbers of people. Why? Major diocesan events in Knoxville and in Raleigh now require big spaces. Why? Catholicism in these areas has increased in sheer numbers so much in the recent past, in living memory.

For example, the Diocese of Raleigh, established in 1924 to serve all the Catholics of North Carolina, and for long among the American dioceses with the fewest Catholics, has been responsible for the Church in the eastern part of the Tar Heel state since 1971, when the Diocese of Charlotte came into being. The Raleigh diocese listed about 65,000 Catholics in 1971. Now it records 245,000 Catholics, or an increase of about 400 percent. The Knoxville diocese was formed in 1988, and its growth in the ensuing 28 years also has been amazing. Catholics have more than doubled in their number.

Everything has grown, not just the Catholic Church. The economy has been, and is, good both in eastern Tennessee and eastern North Carolina. Replacing old industries are pursuits serving modern, high-tech needs. Winters are less disruptive. Transportation is good. Quality of life is improving. This means that people, including Catholics, come to find jobs, and they find them.

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Nothing is new. Similar influences led to growth in New York, Los Angeles, Milwaukee and Detroit, once upon a time.

Why is Southern and Southwestern Catholicism growing? Public opinion studies suggest two factors are at play. First, overall in these areas religion still is respected. Affiliation with a religion is expected of people. The other influence is that Catholic newcomers arrive to find the local Church familiar and welcoming.

For Catholics, the mood is upbeat. Vitality is in the air. Institutionalized religion is relevant. So, another part of the story is the numbers of converts, not surprisingly.

What about Catholics elsewhere, anywhere? This growth prompts the question of why is religion important? Then, wherever we are, how convincing is each of us in saying that religion and church are important?

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.