How Being Southern Made Me A Better Catholic

by Ironic Catholic on June 17, 2011

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

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  • Anonymous

    I once lived in the South, if Texas counts as the South.  So I had a taste of what you are describing when I was a young adult in the Air Force. Having lived in a Catholic culture, I didn’t have the skills you described, although I was already reading the Bible.  I learned to be more vocal about expressing my beliefs.

  • Fr. Christian Mathis

    Of course Texas counts as the South! Unless one would argue that it is actually a separate nation.

  • Ironiccatholic

    Fun to see it up!  Thanks again for getting me to write such a piece.

  • Ironiccatholic

    Esp like seeing the interior of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville up top here!

  • Fr. Christian Mathis

    I thought you might like seeing a familiar church.

  • Amanda

    Wonderful post! While my mom’s side of the family hails from east TN and we visited every once in awhile, I never actually lived there…so starting my formation with the Sisters in Georgia is going to be quite a different experience! Good to know what I’ll be getting into :)

  • 8twelve

    This is really inspiring. I was born & raised on the East coast, where Catholicism is in the soil. And I have to say that going to an oversized, overly liberal state school in Jersey was my “south”. You had to put up or shut up, and I had to learn to articulate what I believed or die trying… and even with a dozen Sunday Masses to choose from, in several languages, no less, it still made me more grateful and better able to give of myself as a Catholic.
    Still, I have some Southern friends who will also really enjoy this post, and I’ll be passing it on…

  • Fr. Christian Mathis

    I am sure you will have a great time in Georgia. I will keep you in prayer.

  • Fr. Christian Mathis

    Having to defend the faith often is great for strengthening one’s beliefs. It has helped me learn more about Catholicism as well as the areas in my own life that needed to be strengthened. 

    Thanks for the comment!

  • AnneG

    I love this! After a long sojourn in the northeast in a majority Catholic state we were hard-pressed to find a faithful Catholic. Then we were overseas, another different experience in majority Catholic countries where faith and religion are not taken seriously.
    My children went to college in the south and we are back in NC, even though we live in the New Jersey part of NC.
    You are right. I love the interest and respect and even curiosity about faith here.
    BTW Fr, Texas is only southern in certain parts. It’s a big place. 

  • Zilmar Pereira

    I  was born in Rio de Janeiro, capital of Brazil, a country with a large Roman Catholic majority. In spite of the afore said,    in my high school days we catholics had to argue  almost everyday in defense of the Church, because we were then living the years of a very aggresive Evangelical growth. I have to say that it was the  frequency and heat of those discussions that  helped me  seek deeper biblical knowledge, an interest in The Fathers and brought upon me a genuine pleasure in defending my Church.

  • Lynne

    I’m from Massachusetts, living here in SC for about 9 months now and it’s so true about points 4, 5 and 6…. I’m working on 1…

  • Fr. Christian Mathis

    What is it in other places? The West perhaps?

  • Fr. Christian Mathis

    Glad to hear you are working on it. Something we all have to continue to work on!

  • Kolbi99

    I am a Southern cradle Catholic raised in NashVegas and this is so true and well said. I attribute my strong Catholic faith to many of the same points you made but the most powerful example of Southern Catholic Women and how to stand up for my faith and share my faith were and still are the Dominican Sisters at St. Cecilia. Ther were called to start a girls school in Bashville in 1860 and just celebrated the 150th year of Catholic education for girls! I know I am a stronger Catholic with a deeper faith because of their example and the open discussions I have had with countless non-Catholic friends. In those discussions we can focus on the word of God and share the similarities if our faiths and educate eachother respectfully about the differences and misconceptions. It is a beautiful and powerful experience for everyone!

  • neripowell

    Great post!  I grew up attending Baptist/Methodist churches in Louisiana and Mississippi.  Every once in a while, a little Baptist will come out in my preaching.  It’s the King James Bible, the revivals, the hymns, and the fried chicken at Sunday dinner-on-the-ground. 

    Fr. Philip Neri, OP

  • Fr. Christian Mathis

    Speak of the Dominicans, and they appear! Thanks for the comments Fr. Philip and Kolbi. I too was taught by the Nashville Dominicans in high school. They are excellent teachers of the Gospel in both word and deed. 

  • Richard5374

    Indeed.  I attended college at Peabody for a year and a half and enjoyed  every minute of it.  I should have stayed and retired there in Nashville.

  • Brendan McGrath

    I didn’t think it would be possible to write a post like this without mentioning Flannery O’Connor!

  • Brendan McGrath

    I didn’t think it would be possible to write a post like this without mentioning Flannery O’Connor!

  • Ironiccatholic

    Ha!  Actually, I think it is possible to love Southern Catholicism and not Miss Flannery–although it sounds like I would have liked her more than the stories, which freaked me out (yes I know that was the point).

  • Paulette

    I grew up in the far north east and was the only catholic in my school .  I can understand you very well.  I now live in the south and also understand all you say about living in the south.  What a blessing to be able to discuss our differences and find out that our Catholic origins are also those of our Christian friends.  ” I pray that they may be one Father as you and I are one”  Let us continue  the Prayer of Jesus in our every day lives.

  • Fr. Christian Mathis


  • CMinor

    If you read southern newspapers long enough you start to develop a context for some of those stories though. (Still having trouble with the comma.)

  • Krausesw

    I was a military brat growing up and spent most of my childhood in Northern Virginia, then married a military man and have been on a tour of the south with him. In 10 years we have moved 5 times.  I have seen South Texas (x2), Louisiana, Virginia, and am now in Mississippi.  Being in the Bible Belt does everything Shannon says it does.  I always say that if I wrote a book I would entitle it “It took Protestants to make a Catholic”.  It’s one of the reason I had the courage to start my own blog this year.

  • Hnrlclr

    Go to Alabama and visit the Mexican families working there.  Hurry up because they are leaving in droves.  Where is the southern church in all this?

  • Fr. Christian Mathis

    It would seem that the Church in Alabama as well as other states is attempting to defend the human dignity of all people.

  • Aurora Maddela

    Susan, thumps up to you. I almire your postitive attitude being a Catholic in the south. Many challenges indeed and you have conquered them all. congratulations. Aurora

  • Julita Rusiñol

    Father Christian, is this the church where you are a pastor? It is beautiful in this picture. If not, could you tell me where it is?
    God bless you.


  • Fr. Christian Mathis

    It is a picture of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. A beautiful church building, but not my current assignment.

  • The Ironic Catholic

    Thanks for the kind words.

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