Pittsburgh Bishop: ‘Why I Established a New Black Catholic Parish’

Bishop David Zubik re-established St. Benedict the Moor as a personal parish in the Black Catholic tradition, giving all Pittsburgh Catholics an opportunity to be enriched by their spiritual patrimony.

Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik addresses members of the media in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Oct. 27, 2018.
Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik addresses members of the media in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Oct. 27, 2018. (photo: Photo by Dustin Franz/AFP via Getty Images)

St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church is the U.S.’s newest Catholic parish in the Black Catholic tradition and is a profound declaration from the Diocese of Pittsburgh that the spiritual patrimony of Black Catholics is a treasure to be honored and shared by all.

St. Benedict the Moor is a personal parish, meaning that the parish is not built around territory, but around a particular Catholic tradition — in this case the Black Catholic tradition. Some personal parishes are built around the tradition of the old Roman Rite; others such as the parishes of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter have Anglican traditions. Still other personal parishes reflect Catholic ways of liturgy, prayer, spirituality, and community that developed among a particular people, were handed down, and sustained generations in the faith, for example, the Catholic traditions unique to French, Polish or Black Americans. But in all these examples, any Catholic is welcome to join these parishes and embrace the traditions that help them illuminate a way of knowing, loving, and following Jesus Christ.

In this interview with the Register, Bishop Zubik explains why he re-established St. Benedict the Moor as a personal parish in the Black Catholic tradition, the vital role he sees for Black Catholics in Pittsburgh’s re-evangelization, the next steps to come, and why he would consider establishing more personal parishes.


Bishop Zubik, a lot of people are intrigued about your decision to re-establish St. Benedict the Moor as a personal parish in the Black Catholic tradition. How did this process begin?

I think bishops try to respond to the needs of people, and that's why personal parishes are established. We know that, especially in our area that at the beginning of the last century, when the immigrants were coming from Europe, there were so many personal parishes so people could carry on the traditions as they were helping to build up the faith in our area and in the United States.

So the way this process happened was providential as it happened around the time that all the unrest happened across the country.


So this process began before the protests over Black lives and dignity in our society that erupted after the police-related killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis?

Correct. The establishment of this parish was not as a result of the tragedy in Minneapolis, but it's just providential that the decision came out at the same time. So we have been involved in an all-diocese reorganization since 2015. St. Benedict was one of the individual parishes, and it was pulled together with two other parishes in the city. But it became pretty apparent at the beginning that it was going to be a mismatch. And people were expressing some concerns. So I went to the parish back on February 23, had Mass with them and a town hall meeting that went for several hours. And people were raising concerns about the needs of Black Catholics. So I had asked that there be an ad hoc committee that would give me some recommendations. They did, and came back with recommendations about months ago, and one of the recommendations was that they would appreciate consideration for the establishment of a personal parish.

And they made a very convincing case. I responded to it, took it to the priests council, and they affirmed it. And we went ahead, and so the parish actually began again as a personal parish [July 13, 2020].


This is a new chapter with very old roots in St. Benedict’s history then.

There's an 130 year history to St. Benedict's parish. And we've tried over the course of the years to be very responsive to the needs of our faithful. Back in October 2018, I established another personal parish, and that was for the traditional Catholics. They have The Most Precious Blood of Jesus parish on the north side, and it's responding to the spiritual needs of folks there. So this [Black Catholic personal parish] is in the same vein: we're responding to the special needs of Black Catholics in our area.


So correct me if I'm wrong, but every Catholic can participate in this personal parish for the Black Catholic tradition too. You don't have to be a Black Catholic in order to be part of this parish, correct?

Exactly, because when you take a look at the two types of parishes, territorial parish and the personal parish, a personal parish has no boundaries. Territorial parishes do, but personal parishes don't. So people can come from all over and a number of people [other than Black Catholics] do, because they want to be a part of the liturgy of the parish and as well as all the other elements [of the Black Catholic tradition] that make the parish unique.


So by making St. Benedict a personal parish, as opposed to an African American majority territorial parish, how does that strengthen the parish's Black Catholic identity, tradition or evangelization?

Well, I want to say something about the clergy team. I've appointed one of our priests Father Tom Burke, who's pastor of another parish [St. Mary Magdalen] in the East End of the city of Pittsburgh. And there are two other parochial vicars, Father, David Taylor, who was our first Black priest that was ordained back in 1974, and Father Matt Hawkins, who's a newly ordained [Black Catholic] priest. I just ordained him on the last Saturday in June.  St. Mary Magdalen parish is on the East End, but it also encompasses an area of Pittsburgh where there has been a heavy population of Black Catholics. So I assigned these three priests also to St. Benedict's. So they're two separate parishes, and Father Burke is the pastor of both, but it really becomes I think an invitation even for people that are on the East End, specifically Homewood, which has a heavy Black population, that they also know that they could be a part of St. Benedict parish as well. And then there are a lot of people [of different ethnic backgrounds] who also like to go to St. Benedict, because they appreciate the worship, the customs, the traditions, that have been on longstanding celebration at St. Benedict.


When people presented you this strong case for a personal parish in the Black Catholic tradition, what were some of the things that really excited you about this, and made you say, “that's a great idea. Let's go for it”?

One of the things that I hope people would say about my leadership is that I don't endorse a cookie cutter approach. I think that as long as the Church allows it within a broadening of parameters, then I'm all for it, because we have different spiritual needs and faith communities have different spiritual needs. One of the things that I try to use as my yardstick is that whenever I'm going to be appointing priests or deacons to a parish, I want to take a look at what are the needs of the faith community there and how can we satisfy those needs by assigning priests and deacons to them that are going to be on the same page with them. And taking a look at the spiritual needs of Black Catholics in the Hill District and beyond, I think they made a strong case to say we've had a strong tradition and we would like to be able to reemerge as a personal parish. And I thought there was a great deal of wisdom in that, and I heard them in what they said was “this is what makes our faith alive.”

There are also a number of good things that they gave as part of the ad hoc report about inclusion of more Black Catholics in terms of the administration of the diocese, on commissions, things that nature, and that there would be a much closer working relationship between the priests appointed to the parish and lay leadership. And all that I found to be very exciting.


The diocese has faced a great deal of challenges, and you’ve been going through this process to put the local church on a firm footing to go re-evangelize. What are some of the potential things that has you excited about St. Benedict the Moor's role in the future evangelization in Pittsburgh?

 The first and the most important one is that I want our Black Catholics to know is [that] they're an integral and important part of the diocese. As everybody has had to do after the tragedy in Minnesota, we've all had to take a look at the sin of racism in our culture. Sometimes, you know, racism takes the form of the kind of violence that we saw in Minnesota. But sometimes it's very subtle. So subtle that some people don't recognize it as racism. And I think that was one of the messages that people gave me when I went there on that Sunday. They said, "we want to make sure that people know that we are a part of this Church, we have a lot to contribute to it, and we have perspectives that we can bring to the Church.” And I think that's my first hope that all Black Catholics in the Diocese of Pittsburgh will know how much I embrace them as an important and integral part of the church at Pittsburgh.

On the very top of St. Benedict church is a huge statue of St. Benedict the Moor. And now, Father Burke, who's the new pastor, has lights placed on that statue because it is at the very top of the city of Pittsburgh. So once again, that statue and the open arms of St. Benedict the Moor stand as a witness to the entire city of Pittsburgh about the welcoming nature hopefully of the Church but certainly of St. Benedict parish.


Any next steps that you're looking at?

 Yes. As I said to the people on [a recent] Sunday, the eve of the actual beginning of the new parish, this is just the beginning. A number of things that people put on the recommendations from that ad hoc committee are things that we're going to be moving forward with. And I think that's certainly something that Father Burke, Father Taylor, and Father Hawkins are committed to. That's the direction we're moving in, and I think people are excited about it.


If St. Benedict the Moor really takes off, could you see yourself doing this again — establishing another personal parish in the Black Catholic tradition?

Yes, if the need is there [for more personal parishes], then we really need to take a look at that and move forward for sure. That's the reason why I established the personal parish for the traditional Catholics as well, too.


Do you think having more of the kind of these diverse expressions available to Catholics can have a really enriching effect on their own experience of the Catholic faith?

Well, as I mentioned about our reorganization of our diocese — and this is the third time that we've been engaged in this since the early 1990s — our whole process is called "On Mission for the Church Alive." And the big foundational reason for doing this reorganization is to help people come closer to Jesus. Sometimes we lose sight that that's the most important reality, but once we focus on Jesus it becomes clear to us where our destination is, which is to Heaven. So we've been working very hard that every parish, whether it's personal or territorial, is being established to help people to do just that: to come to know Jesus, to love Jesus, and to live Jesus.

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