Catholic Evangelization in the South Print
Wednesday, 25 June 2008 16:53

Written by Joe Waters

On the whole, one of the great missed opportunties for Catholic evangelization, education, and charity in this country is the rural South. My parents just drew my attention to a recent article in USA Today that highlighted the continuing problems and shrinking populations in the 623 rural counties that make up the South's "Black Belt" ("named for the rich, dark topsoil that drew plantation owners to the region"). While there are some places in the South such as New Orleans, St Augustine, Mobile, and Charleston that have very historic Catholic populations dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries or earlier and others have heavy "immigrant" (read "Yankee") Catholic populations (i.e. the Triangle in North Carolina, most of Florida, and the exemplary "new South" cities such Atlanta, Charlotte, and Nashville), a great swath of the South has been recently left behind or ignored by the Catholic Church in the United States both in terms of evangelical initiatives and social apostolates.

Several months ago a good priest friend of mine in the diocese of Raleigh who is also an American church historian showed me a copy of the main Florida Catholic newspaper from 1943 or so that had an account of the annual meeting of the "Catholic Committee of the South" at which Mother Katharine Drexel spoke, no doubt about the need for evangelization and dynamic social apostolates in the states of the former Confederacy. It was very touching to read and a stark reminder of how much St Katharine and others were able to accomplish for the Catholic Church in the rural South and how little has been done since the 1960's.

The article in USA Today should remind us of the great economic and social needs that persist in the South, as well as the fact that most of the counties of the rural South still have dreadfully low Catholic populations and are not only underserved by the ordained, but have little in the way of lay apostolates, especially in the field of education. It is my conviction that the Catholic Church should be most actively present in those places where human need is greatest. Many look abroad to find those places, but few dedicate themselves to work in the home missions. The rural South has for the most part been left behind the rest of the country when it comes to education, however, even in light of this fact few Catholic schools can be found in those areas to provide a Catholic remedy the problem. When Catholics find human need they should not simply rely on the state to address the root problems of the needs, but should propose solutions themselves that are derived from the genius of Catholic pastoral wisdom and social doctrine. This article should remind us that we have plenty to do here in the rural parts of our own country, especially in the South, inĀ Appalachia, and on the Great Plains, and it is the particular gift of the layman to make the sorts of contributions in secular fields that could turn those depressed regions of our country around for the better and bring to them the light of the Gospel and authentic human progress.

I would be very interested in hearing from anyone who has ideas or pastoral experience that may help those of us who are Southerners faithfully exercise our lay apostolate more effectively in our home region. In doing so, I hope we are able to give new, spiritual meaning to the phrase "the South will rise again!"

You may also wish to check out the book Saving the Heartland: Catholic Missionaries in Rural America, 1920-1960, by Jeffrey D. Marlett. (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002.) which highlights the many evangelical and social efforts, including some funded or executed by St Katharine Drexel and her sisters, that Catholics undertook to bring Christ, his Gospel, and the genius of Catholic social doctrine to America's rural places.