Pittsburgh’s Newest Personal Parish Shines Light on the Black Catholic Tradition
The Black Catholic tradition comes from Black Catholics and is open to all, but parish closures risk losing a treasure to be shared.
PITTSBURGH — High above the city of Pittsburgh, St. Benedict the Moor’s statue stands aloft his namesake church, with arms stretched wide open to embrace the people below. For a decade or so, the spotlights on St. Benedict the Moor had burned out — until now, when pastor Father Tom Burke replaced them and threw the switch.
The lights once again shine on the depiction of St. Benedict the Moor, who now keeps watch over Pittsburgh and the city’s newest Catholic parish.
“They made a strong case that they had a strong tradition and would like to reemerge as a personal parish,” Bishop David Zubik of the Diocese of Pittsburgh told the Register.
He noted any Catholic, not just Black Catholic, is free to join St. Benedict’s. Currently African American, white, Latino, and Asian American parishioners have made St. Benedict’s their spiritual home.
“A lot of people go to St. Benedict because they appreciate the worship, the customs and traditions that have been a long-standing part of St. Benedict’s,” he said. The parishioners of St. Benedict, he explained, shared with him back in February how the Black Catholic tradition that had defined their parish, and made their faith and evangelization efforts come alive, was going to be lost in the parish-merger process.
“Bishops try to respond to the needs of people, which is why personal parishes are established,” he said.
In 2018, Bishop Zubik had established a personal parish in the traditional form of the Roman Rite, Most Precious Blood of Jesus, which all Catholics can join, as well. He became convinced there was an opportunity to do something similar with St. Benedict’s for the Black Catholic tradition.
The news elated St. Benedict’s parishioner Ryan Long, who had not seen such joy and unity in over a decade — before the first parish merger.
“It’s like Christ rising on Easter,” he said. Having a Black Catholic parish will reignite a “pilot flame that’s been out a decade.”
The Black Catholic tradition informs Catholic worship, fellowship and evangelization in a variety of ways that stands apart from other Latin Rite territorial parishes.
St. Benedict parishioner Lisa Finch told the Register that the Mass follows the rubrics of the Roman Missal, which set the parameters for how their spiritual tradition is expressed in the liturgy. At St. Benedict’s, Sunday Mass is a sung Mass — in the Gospel tradition — lasting two hours. The homily lasts around half an hour, and the exchange of peace is not a symbolic moment, but lasts approximately 20 minutes.
Wearing one’s “Sunday best” is another defining feature of the Black Catholic tradition — typically, men wear professional suits and ties, the women wear dresses and hats, and some wear formal African cultural dress.
But it is a parish where people are known by name, and it “feels like home.”
“We’re a very close-knit parish, and people take care of each other,” Finch said. “We’re joyful about being there and letting the Lord lead us.”
From the very outset, Black Christians have strongly identified with Jesus Christ suffering with them through the horrors of slavery and racial injustice, explained Darren Davis, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and author of the forthcoming book Perseverance in the Parish? Religious Attitudes From a Black Catholic Perspective. But they also have strongly identified with Christ as the one who delivers people from evil.
Both Black Catholics and Black Protestants have this “shared social-religious experience” that shaped their spirituality, their music and expressions of worship, but also their conviction that followers of Jesus cannot be passive in the face of evil: They must actively work to transform society with the Gospel. So they built their churches as “spiritual centers of activity and engagement,” said Davis.
While Black Catholics are 3% of the Catholic population in the U.S., their religious engagement is above the average parish, exceeding white parishioners as a demographic group, and in some areas they equal or rival the religious engagement of Latino Catholics.
According to the data published in Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century, parishes in which African Americans exceeded 10% of the congregation saw $11.34 giving per household, nearly $2 more per household than the average parish.
The book’s survey data also showed the vast majority of Black Catholics “strongly agreed” their parish should welcome people with disabilities, young-adult parishioners, immigrants, non-English speakers, low-income families, inactive Catholics, divorced parishioners, non-Catholic spouses and new parishioners.
Black Catholic Traditions
St. John Paul II often highlighted the importance of the unity of the Catholic faith being expressed through a diversity of cultures — not uniformity — and in 1987 he made a point of affirming African Americans’ desire to hear the “Good News of salvation proclaimed in ways that speak to their own heritage and traditions.”
“Your black cultural heritage enriches the Church and makes her witness of universality more complete,” the future saint said, calling them to “continue to place this heritage at the service of the whole Church for the spread of the Gospel.”
St. John Paul II in 1991 designated St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk, Virginia, as a minor basilica — the first minor basilica in the Black Catholic tradition in the U.S.
The parish is in the midst of a multiyear renovation of the Gothic-style church, which has many features reflective of the African American tradition, such as the Black Madonna, Stations of the Cross and the Kente cloth. But it is the intensity of the parish’s Black Catholics that particularly stands out.
“They’re super-charged Catholics,” the basilica’s pastor, Father Jim Curran, said, adding he has never had another parish assignment with such high religious engagement. “They keep me on my toes.”
Father Curran explained that the Black Catholic tradition emphasizes beautiful liturgy carried out with “enthusiasm and thoughtfulness” and robust preaching “in solidly grounded theology.” The spiritual emotion and “rhythm” in the liturgy proceeds from a profound encounter with Jesus Christ.
And a five-minute homily will not do — Father Curran’s homilies last at least 15 minutes. People follow the homily actively, sometimes nodding, giving “Amen!” or crying “Preach it!” as they are moved by the Holy Spirit.
Everyone is also welcomed and known by name. Mass lasts at least an hour and a half, but people linger to enjoy fellowship with each other.
Oretha Pretlow, a longtime parishioner of St. Mary’s, said Black Catholics’ profound closeness to Jesus Christ draws from their deeply ingrained belief that Jesus has been present with them from the first moment their ancestors were enslaved and placed on slave ships, one on top of the other.
Pretlow said this spirituality is something “we carry with us,” and it convicts people that Jesus Christ is truly among them in their parish community.
“We’ve always felt that he’s with us,” she said. “You cannot give up — you just have to cling to the Vine, because that’s who we are.”
The spirituality is also compiled in the African American Catholic hymnal Lead Me, Guide Me, which is also found in Black Catholic parishes. Pretlow said one hymn powerfully expresses the Black Christian experience with the lines “We’ve come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord.”
Pretlow reflected on what St. Mary’s Black Catholic tradition means. “When you come to St. Mary’s, you’re going to be fed, and I mean in all sorts of ways.” Catholics are fed by the preaching and the Eucharist at St. Mary’s, and parishioners provide full-course meals for the neighborhood’s poor residents, some of whom walk miles to their parish.
“Jesus says to go out and feed my sheep, and that’s what we do.”
Saving Black Catholic Parishes
Approximately 800 out of 21,000 parishes in the U.S. are “predominantly African American,” according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ data. However, Notre Dame’s Davis said he believes that number may be higher than the number of Catholic territorial and personal parishes that embody the Black Catholic tradition.
Over the last 40 years, Black Catholic parishes have declined in number, and for all the wrong reasons, according to Davis. He explained many Black Catholic parishes have been closed or merged based chiefly on weekly Mass attendance and collection revenue.
These metrics are hitting Black Catholic parishes disproportionately because they have smaller congregations with smaller collections and usually have to also repair and refit costly traditional church buildings.
Dioceses have to evaluate Catholic parishes on other metrics, Davis explained, such as Mass participation rates, sacramental participation rates and tithing rates. If they did so, Black Catholic parishes would generally stand head and shoulders above the rest.
“These parishes need to be bolstered; they don’t need to be destroyed,” he said.
St. Benedict has more than 240 families — a parish that is on the small size compared to most Catholic parishes, but statistically outperforms larger Catholic parishes in seeing majorities of its parishioners receive sacraments, participate in weekly Mass, exhibit lay involvement, extend household giving, and foster more fellowship among parishioners and the priest.
“Community is very difficult to create artificially,” explained Stephen Bullivant, director of the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society and author of Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II. He told the Register that personal parishes can build themselves around a particular “niche” drawing from a wide area, similar to what Protestant megachurches are doing, but this is not possible for modern territorial parishes, which are defined by their geographical boundaries.
Personal parishes declined following the 1960s, when bishops thought they should merge them into territorial parishes that embodied their idea of what mainstream Catholicism should look like. But Bullivant pointed out that personal parishes are getting a second look in the Church today, as seen in the ordinariate parishes in the Anglican tradition, or parishes devoted to the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite, and now St. Benedict the Moor.
A New Chapter
At St. Benedict the Moor, the parish is ready for this new chapter of evangelization through their Black Catholic tradition.
Father Tom Burke, the pastor, said St. Benedict’s has a “neat opportunity” to both evangelize its predominantly African American neighborhood and work closely with other churches of the Black Christian tradition. The parish is hosting the Vagabond Missionaries, who are Catholics in the their 20s doing street ministry to bring young people to Jesus Christ.
“There’s still a lot of unchurched in the area,” he said.
Parishioner Lisa Finch said the “family-oriented” parish is ready to adopt more people of all walks and races.
“When we say you’re a part of us, we really mean it,” she said.
Bishop Zubik said he would definitely consider establishing more personal parishes going forward. “If the need is there, we’re going to take a look at it and move forward,” he said. The most important reality, he added “is that we bring people closer to Jesus.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.