Friday, July 22, 2011

"It is good to be here in the sunny south..."

So said Francis Xavier Seelos, the now-beatified Redemptorist priest when he was arrived in New Orleans in 1866. Indeed, it seems that many modern-day Catholics would agree.

St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Sardis, Mississippi.

Recent statistics released by the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership project show that while the number of Catholic priests and parishes has continually dropped in the U.S. over the past decade, the number of American Catholics has risen. This means that the average size of American Catholic parishes is growing, along with the number of weekend Masses offered at these parishes.

The 1964 research blog of Georgetown Univ. takes combines this information with recent census data which proves that the population of the U.S. is moving West and South (the so-called Sun Belt states). Once-bustling industrial states in the North are drying up as southern and western states grow by leaps and bounds. Michigan even went so far as to lose population at the last census (the only state to do so).

It should come as no surprise, then, that the Catholic Church is experiencing its greatest growth within our country in western and southern states. (You might say that Southern fried Catholicism is becoming more and more mainstream).

Once-thriving parishes in the population-impoverished regions of the North and Midwest are being merged and shuttered to match the changing demographics. But what will happen to the Church in the South, where there have never been many Catholic parishes? It's an interesting question to ponder and the 1964 blog predicts a building boom in Catholic churches in the region over the next century:

An equally challenging question for the Church is how will it address the needs for all the Catholics in areas where there really never was a “local” neighborhood parish? As we have shown in a previous post, there are not a lot of dioceses building new parishes in areas where the Catholic population moved and is growing strongly. I understand there are challenges to building a new parish including capital campaigns, planning commissions, architects, and construction companies to deal with. This was all I imagine much easier to do in the 19th century. But a parish building boom will likely be needed in the U.S. Sun Belt in the 21st century.

The migration trends I note above are long-term but just look at the short-term effects below of the recession on mobility for two counties. The top image is for those leaving (red) and coming to (black) the county which includes the city of Cleveland in 2008 (the source is IRS data and the image is generated from Forbes). The bottom image shows the same for the county including the city of Atlanta. As one can see some of Cleveland’s population loss has been Atlanta’s gain (note we do not know the religion of any of the individuals in the IRS data).

In 2001, the Archdiocese of Atlanta had more than 320,000 Catholics, 131 active diocesan priests, and 77 parishes (note in 1991, the Archdiocese had 176,000 Catholics and 65 parishes). Moving a decade ahead, the diocese now has 900,000 Catholics, 141 active diocesan priests, and 87 parishes. Thus, the number of Catholics increased by 181% in the last decade but the number priests only increased by 8% and the number of parishes by 13%. This means the number of Catholics per parish in the Archdiocese has grown from 4,156 in 2001 to 10,345 in 2011. Ten new parishes have been added to accommodate 580,000 additional Catholics. I certainly do not mean to sound critical in any way of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. In fact this Archdiocese is one of the few that has added significant numbers of parishes in recent years. Thus, even where the needs are recognized and growth is occurring, the arch/dioceses doing the most to focus on new construction still tend to be a bit behind the pace of the rapidly changing distribution of the Catholic population in the United States.

As a young, non-Catholic Christian growing up in small-town Mississippi, one of my strongest impressions of Catholics was that many of them were not from the South. Statistically speaking, this youthful observation is proving to have been providential. But these non-Southern Catholics moving into our "neighborhood" in the coming years will (Lord-willing) raise their children as Catholics in the "sunny south."

And what an exciting thought it is, to imagine a future American Catholicism infused with a healthy dose of  evangelical excitement for the Faith, a good-natured gentility and charm, topped off with a literary wit that could burrow into popular thought and imagination, seeding the minds of countless future generations with an admiration of the apostolic Faith.

Flannery O'Connor would certainly approve and that is a Southern fried Catholicism to which we can all aspire!