Fr. Christian kindly asked me to offer a reflection on Blessed Is The Kingdom, and given his place of residence, I suggested an “Ode to Southern Catholicism.” He may be regretting saying OK to that, but here it is.
Those of you who know me through the Ironic Catholic blog may be thinking “Wait. Isn’t she in frostbitten Minnesota?” Indeed I am…for my work. But I was born in Virginia, lived in rural Virginia more than anyplace else growing up, went to college at Mary Washington in the same state, and then did my graduate work at NashVegas’ Vanderbilt. I attended a Catholic “mission church” growing up, and became very accustomed to being asked “are you saved?” by my Baptist friends. My family still lives in the South and I visit once a year for my fill of warm accents, hot weather, fried chicken and sweet tea.
Living in Minnesota for 15 years has taught me many unexpected things, including not wearing post earrings in January (don’t ask), but one of the more serious things I have learned is that Southern Catholics have a cultural leg up on people who live in Catholic-entrenched territories. For example:
1) I learned how to defend the faith. Not perfectly, perhaps, but when people keep telling you that you aren’t saved, that you believe Mary is a god, and that this Chick Tract is your ticket to salvation, you have to say SOMETHING back. Despite being a very shy child, I learned to stand up for myself, my Church, and what I believed. And even with my parish having the typically weak religious education of the 1970s and 80s, I made myself learn basic Catholic doctrine. Basically, I had to.
2) I learned it’s OK to be different. I was often the only Catholic in any given peer group. I had friends who had college roommates ask for different roomies after discovering she was Catholic. My own college roommate always left a book prominently on our shared desk, which compared Catholics with other cults. You could buckle or you could learn integrity.
3) I learned that God is merciful, because I did buckle as a college student, even a graduate student, more than once. Thankfully I went to parishes and campus ministries who gave support to being Catholic in a culture that didn’t understand it. Given the South’s history of slavery and segregation, maybe some people in the South are good models of not being defined by the wrongs of their history.
4) I learned the Bible because everyone in the South knows the Bible. I learned it in part to stay in the conversations with friends and acquaintances. I kept learning from it because I found out it beautiful, and a gift of God.
5) I learned how to be a hospitable Catholic. Hospitality is one of the key Biblical virtues—indeed, the Bible is so immersed in the expectation to provide hospitality we can barely see it. It’s like seeing water while underwater—you see through hospitality. Southern hospitality is no fiction, based on the reality that when we share we are abundantly blessed. I learned hospitality to others within the Church, outside of the Church, everywhere in the South. Hospitality has no boundaries. This cultural experience of offering and receiving hospitality helps me understand the Scriptures better.
6) I learned it’s acceptable to be religious. Goodness gracious, the South is a very religious place. Nashville was the most churched city (per capita) in the United States when I lived there, full of good Gospel music and witness. I miss that open talk about religion and spirituality. I’m glad I grew up around people happy to give voice to their faith in God.
7) I learned evangelization is the norm. Churches evangelize. That’s what they do. It is what they are called to. It’s the Great Commission, for crying out loud. That, too, is not the norm in many Catholic churches, especially the ethnically identified ones (for example, our town still has two Polish, one German, one Bohemian, and—by default—one Irish parish). After all, why tell others when it’s all about your extended blood family? Um…that couldn’t be more wrong.
I could go on. But this is all to say—even with the challenges of being Catholic in that culture, I miss the South enormously. If being Catholic in the South was sometimes hard, the rewards were huge. I left better prepared to be a Catholic in our world through those experiences than perhaps some people who have never had to articulate their faith to someone who didn’t understand it. To my Southern friends in my classrooms, at the Kroger, at the truck stops, outside the Cathedral in Nashville—you made me do that, and I thank y’all from the bottom of my heart.
Susan, aka The Ironic Catholic