THE PAPAL VISIT; Visit to South Carolina Reflects Rise of Catholics in Bible Belt

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    When a Southern Bishop visited the Vatican three years ago, he was asked a curious question by Pope John Paul II. ”How is it to live with 98 percent non-Catholic people?” the Pope asked.

    ”It’s a great challenge,” Bishop Ernest L. Unterkoefler of Charleston, S.C. answered.

    The exchange, recalled the other day by the Bishop, was the beginning of the process that will culminate today in the Pope’s visit to Columbia, S.C., in the heart of the Protestant Bible Belt, on the second stop of his 10-day visit to North America.

    The centerpiece of the visit to Columbia is an ecumenical meeting and prayer service that the Pope will have with 30 Protestant leaders on what is unquestionably evangelical Protestant turf. But the visit also evokes some of the historical difficulty that Catholics have had living in the South. Objects of Disdain

    South Carolina has the smallest percentage of Catholics of any state; 2.1 percent of the state’s 3.35 million residents, just over 70,000, are Catholic.

    Over the years, Catholics in much of the South have been derided as ”mackerel snappers” and viewed with suspicion, if not disdain, because they worshipped in an alien language, Latin, and sought guidance from an alien power, the Vatican. To bigots, especially away from the coast, they were often lumped together with Jews and blacks for taunting and violence.

    ”A generation ago, if you had told me that the Pope was coming to Columbia, I would have said ‘Impossible!’ ” said Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, the 82-year-old church historian at Catholic University in Washington. ”But, thank God, it is a new day.”

    The ”new day” has been brought on by changes in the Catholic church that made it seem less alien – since the Second Vatican Council, Catholics may eat meat on Fridays and most no longer worship in Latin – as well as a greater degree of tolerance on the part of their largely Baptist neighbors. Catholics Flocking to South

    But probably most significant has been the steady influx of Catholics into the region. These include Northerners following jobs to the Sun Belt and the wave of immigrants, especially Hispanic ones in Florida.

    In 30 years, the increase in the number of Southern Catholics has far outpaced the rapid growth of the region, rising from 1.5 million to 4 million, according to the Official Catholic Directory, published by P. J. Kenedy & Sons.

    The increases have been dramatic in some cases. In Georgia, for example, the number of Catholics rose from 35,000 to 203,000 in 30 years. The growth has been less dramatic but still steady in the statewide Charleston Diocese, where the number of Catholics more than doubled in 30 years from 35,000 to 74,000 as the population as a whole remained roughly steady.

    Dr. Michael V. Gannon, professor of history at the University of Florida, said that the ”huge influx” of Catholics ”is helping to form the mind of the South” today, ”just as the Episcopal and Protestant Churches helped to form that mind in the antebellum and Reconstruction periods in the nation’s history.”

    ”The church also brings with it a long tradition of learning, architecture, and liturgical music that is reshaping the sense of what constitutes religion in the South,” he said. Enormous Changes Seen

    The Catholic roots in the South are deep, but they did not take firm hold until this century. Spanish missions were set up along the Florida, Georgia and South Carolina coasts as far back as the 1500’s. But the Catholic immigrants of that and later times, many illiterate and unskilled, found better job opportunities in the cities of the north. In the South, the same jobs were being done by slaves or later by unskilled blacks.

    Bishop Unterkoefler, a Philadelphia native who became Bishop of Charleston 22 years ago, said that the Pope’s questions about the life of Southern Catholics and his desire for an ecumenical forum had led to the selection of Columbia as a stop on the United States tour.

    The Bishop, who gained visiblity as a fighter for civil rights in the 1960’s, said there had been ”enormous changes” for Catholics since the days when a Ku Klux Klan rally would instill fear in Catholics, blacks and Jews.

    Last month, when the Klan organized a rally in Charleston, the Bishop hastily put together an interfaith and interracial ”service of reconcilliation” at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. ”They had 90 people,” the bishop said of the Klan, adding with obvious satisfaction, ”and we had thousands.” The Pope in the South Times are local. 8:15 A.M.: Pope arrives at Dade County Cultural Center for meeting with Jewish leadership. Opening of Vatican Judaica exhibit. 9:45 A.M: Arrival at Dade County Youth Fairground. Transfer to open papal vehicle for parade through crowd. 10:25 A.M.: Mass at fairground. 1:30 P.M.: Departure from Miami. 3:30 P.M.: Arrival in Columbia, S.C. 4:05 P.M.: Arrival at St. Peter’s Church. 5:10 P.M.: Arrival at house of James B. Holderman, president of University of South Carolina. 5:20 P.M.: Meeting with ecumenical leadership. 6:30 P.M.: Arrival at stadium of University of South Carolina. Circuit of field, followed by ecumenical service. 8:25 P.M.: Departure for New Orleans. 9:05 P.M.: Arrival in New Orleans. Departure 15 minutes later for residence of Archbishop Philip M. Hannan at St. Louis Cathedral.

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