I consider myself something of an expert on this matter, having migrated from the North (where the Church was receeding) to the South in 1976 when the Church was still very much a minority player in the south. I watched this expansive growth that largely took place after Vatican II--and therefore was truly a "Vatican II" church, not as much the renovation church of the North.
From St. Anthony's Messenger, my office neighbor is quoted:
A Southerner who moved North 15 years ago to assume the job of associate publisher at Our Sunday Visitor Publishing House in Huntington, Indiana, Msgr. Owen Campion has a clear perspective on differences between the Northern and Southern Church. His family goes back generations in Nashville, Tennessee, where he used to edit the diocesan newspaper, The Tennessee Register.
The city of Nashville is now five percent Catholic, but was only two percent Catholic when he was growing up, he tells me in a phone interview last January. But there the Catholic Church provided a protective, closed system of its own.
Owen attended a Catholic elementary school staffed by the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia. “Most of the sisters were from Tennessee, and I think that was rather important because they conveyed a certain sense of ownership in the local Church.” Owen went on to attend what was then the only Catholic high school for boys in Nashville, administered and taught by diocesan priests. (Later as a young priest he would teach history there.) “The Diocese of Nashville was unique among Southern dioceses because there were no foreign-born priests, and there were very few priests who were not born in Tennessee.”
Because his family knew the families of the priests and nuns, as a young man he was never afraid of them. He says he could always separate their personality from their role.
Msgr. Campion remembers an incident when he first started serving Mass in sixth or seventh grade at his parish. The servers were new and “the boy beside me and I didn’t know what to do next, bring up the cruets or the Latin responses or whatever. We started whispering back and forth. After Mass, the celebrant, who was recently ordained, just exploded at us. He told us our constant talking had been so distracting that he had almost forgotten where he was, that this was so disrespectful. I went home really shaken.
“I shared that with my dad and told him, ‘You know, Father was just so angry this morning and flew off the handle, and I don’t know if I ever want to go back.’ And I remember my dad said, ‘Now, don’t worry about that. That is the way everyone in his family is. I played baseball with his father and his uncle and, if they missed a pitch, they’d get so angry sometimes they’d walk off the baseball field....Father is a good man, a good priest, and our families have been friends for years. They are even distantly related to us.’
“The point I am making,” Msgr. Campion continues, “is that this old network of family and acquaintances put that priest and others into human dimension. And after I went on to the seminary and then was ordained, this priest became one of my best friends. And I watched him lose his temper on many occasions, and I always remembered what Dad said when he painted it as some genetic trait in that family.”
Msgr. Campion went on to college at St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Alabama, where about 30 percent of the students came from Tennessee and about 30 percent from Alabama, and then to St. Mary’s Seminary near Baltimore to study for the priesthood. At that time St. Mary’s had more than 20 students from Tennessee. He was ordained in 1966.
In his opinion, Southern communities that had a Catholic institution like St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville have had an easier time dealing with the new growth. St. Thomas Hospital, still run by the Daughters of Charity, gave Catholics a source of pride and presented a public face of the Catholic Church as a caring and generous institution where everyone was treated, which impressed non-Catholics. “Good medical care was combined with caring in the human sense. Such institutions, like St. Vincent’s Hospital in Birmingham or Providence in Mobile or Saint Joseph’s in Atlanta, allowed the Catholic Church to have visibility in society far beyond what its numbers would predict. I think it is a pity that health care is changing.”
He thinks the new growth of the Catholic Church is not considerable among African-Americans because of the legacy of segregation and the Catholic Church’s late embrace of the civil-rights movement. His high school was the first in the South to integrate, and graduated its first four-year integrated class in 1958. But in general, Msgr. Campion believes, “The way that the institutional Church either treated or was indifferent to African-Americans is shameful.”
On the plus side, he notes that the Franciscans often served parishes peopled by blacks. He has high praise for Archbishop James F. Lyke, O.F.M., of Atlanta, one of the first African-American bishops, who died in 1992.