Today at Mass I sat near a man with a thick Southern accent. And it brought a smile to hear him say, “Lord, have mercy.”
One of my favorite things about our parish is the juxtaposition of the Catholic Church, a deeply traditional institution, with the American South, a deeply traditional place and people. I am passionate about my Southern identity and culture. I love to see very Southern, traditional people embracing an even older tradition.
In many ways, Catholicism is still a relative newcomer and an outsider to the uplands of the South I call my home. It is much more prevalent in the older, coastal cities such as New Orleans, Biloxi, and Mobile, which were settled by the French; it has been slower to penetrate into more rural regions. Of all the states in the U.S., Mississippi and Alabama have the two smallest percentages of Catholic adherents among their populations as a whole (about 7 and 6 percent). The Church is viewed with some skepticism and even hostility by many evangelicals and fundamentalists. Here, the predominant tradition — going back more than two centuries, to the period of settlement in these states, and even beyond — is evangelical.
I have deep roots in that heritage. I’m proud to have at least half a dozen Baptist and Methodist ministers in my family tree. It troubled me, at first, to consider departing from that. But now, I find it fitting. Catholicism may not be an essential part of the Southern tradition, yet — but one of the key aspects of the Southern identity is that it embraces, incorporates, and celebrates traditions of many forms and origins: our food, drawn so much from slave culture and from a variety of other cuisines; our music, again influenced by African, European, and Caribbean sounds; our customs, such a blending of the Celtic and English and our very own cultivation. The South is a great big cultural melting pot; nothing that enters it stays the same, but takes on a distinctly Southern character. Already, we Southerners are embracing Catholicism and giving it a very Southern flavor. Catholicism joins well with Southern hospitality. And it is fitting that a people who value tradition as much as we do should be a part of the tradition of Christ. Peace be with y’all!