In recent decades, historians of American Catholicism have increasingly shifted their attention from biographies and institutional histories to what is sometimes called "people's history" or "lived religion." Such histories often focus on the parish as the setting where most Catholics experience and practice their faith. As not only the spiritual center for its members, the parish serves their educational, cultural, and communal needs. Taking such a "grass-roots" view of Catholicism allows historians to examine the laity's experiences in parish administration, religious education, and ethnic identity in shaping religious practice and culture. In the 1970s, Jay P. Dolan brought the study of the parish's broad dimensions to prominence in his first book, Immigrant Church, comparing an Irish and a German parish in New York City. Others such as Robert Orsi in Madonna of 115th Street and John McGreevy in Parish Boundaries have continued examining the parish's key role. Revealing the diversity of parish life dispels the notion of a "generic" Catholicism—the same everywhere.1 Instead the parish story highlights how variables like ethnicity, class, and region affect Catholics' experience of their parish, and, consequently, the universal Church. [End Page 93]
The latter point, the impact of region on the American Catholic experience, has proven a fruitful avenue for research in recent years. Regional studies do not ignore ethnicity, but they take into account local customs, culture, economics, and geography in shaping American Catholics' religious experience. The integration of parish and regional approaches is effectively presented in the two-volume American Catholic Parish edited by Jay P. Dolan. Its six authors each examined the U.S. Catholic parish's historical development in the context of characteristics and issues within a specific region. During the last decade studies of Catholic life by region have become more prominent, especially for the South and West. Studies of southern Catholicism often focus on issues of race, while those of the West emphasize Catholics as innovative pioneers on a developing frontier.2
While regional studies illuminate Catholics' lives heretofore overlooked in previous scholarship, many works leave a significant group unexamined: rural Catholics.3 Most studies cited here focus on urban centers where the Catholic faith and culture were long established. This essay examines the opposite: Catholicism on the parish level where it was relatively young and lacked tradition or culture, specifically in the rural South during the late 1960s and early 1970s following the Second Vatican Council. Exploring the council's impact there is particularly useful for illustrating the differences between parish life in urban centers and rural outposts.
Vatican Council II, the General Council convening the world's Catholic bishops in consecutive autumns, 1962-1965, launched a wide-ranging renewal of most aspects of Catholic life. Among the Council's landmark four constitutions, nine decrees, and three declarations, five documents as summarized below are most relevant to the current topic. [End Page 94]
Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Divine Liturgy (1963), affirmed the centrality of the mass as "the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows." In worship Catholics were "to take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite and enriched by it." The constitution and subsequent legislation of the Holy See and the United States bishops renewed the understanding of the liturgy based on New Testament and patristic sources, inaugurated mass in English, and restored practices that had been lost in previous centuries. Implementing the initial reform of the mass began Sunday, November 29, 1964 in most parts of the United States.4
Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (1964), defined the Church as the "People of God" and proclaimed that all the baptized have a call to holiness—not just clergy and vowed religious. Flowing from the latter, Apostolicam Actuositatem, the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (1965), urged the laity to use their baptismal calling to take part with clergy in the "Church's apostolic work."5 Through the formation of and service on councils at parish, diocesan, and national levels, lay persons...