Keith Srakocic / AP Photo
Keith Srakocic / AP Photo
Janice Simmons makes a 35-minute trek to get to church every Sunday.
The trip across Pittsburgh takes her past several other Catholic churches.
For Simmons, a lifelong Catholic, Mass at Saint Benedict the Moor Church in Pittsburgh’s Hill District is intricately tied to her worship and faith experience.
Saint Benedict the Moor has long served as the parish for Black Catholics in the Hill District, and in fact, throughout the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
Simmons, who is Black, says her church offers her an experience not readily found in other parishes.
“There is a spirituality that is common within our culture, among Black people,” said Simmons, who has attended Mass in numerous other churches, including some in Mexico and Rome.
“We are in tune with gospel music and a way of being brought up that has us walking with the Father hand in hand throughout all the trials and oppression that is able to be expressed in our way of clapping and singing, and in a way that is accepted and not looked at as different as when we are in a parish that doesn’t recognize that this is the way we sing and praise.”
Now, the Diocese of Pittsburgh has made official the role and ministry that St. Benedict the Moor has served for the past 130 years.
Bishop David Zubik has designated the church the personal parish for the Black Catholic community of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, with the intention that the parish will respond to the specific spiritual needs of the Black Catholic community.
“Along with their sincere enthusiasm and passion for their Catholic faith, I heard and felt their desire to have their unique spiritual and cultural needs met,” said Zubik, who earlier this year met with Black parishioners to listen to their concerns.
“I want to raise awareness of the need to walk with our Black sisters and brothers as they continue to enrich and be an integral part of the Diocese of Pittsburgh and the Catholic Church Universal.”
The move by Zubik comes at a time when Black Roman Catholics are calling on church leaders to invest and engage more in the fight for racial justice. In the wake of the death of George Floyd in police custody, Black Catholics across the country have demanded that church leaders take a more aggressive role in standing against racism and police brutality.
Simmons notes that while in the past the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and even Pope Francis have issued pastoral letters condemning racism, words have fallen short of translating into action.
“We are always looking at the fact that we are all equal and made in the image and likeness of God,” said Simmons, a member of the Diocesan National Black Catholic Congress Leadership Team.
“However, when it comes to the issue of unarmed men and women being murdered in the streets by police or different issues that are race related or biased or prejudiced, I personally, and I know others, don’t feel that there is enough said and enough outcry about these kinds of things,” Simmons said. “It seems people are afraid or hesitate to adopt Black Lives Matter. They want to adopt ‘all lives matter.’ We know all lives matter, but we want to stress that black lives matter too.”
Zubik stressed that the decision does not signal any deepening of divisions.
“This is not a call for separatism but instead for a pledge of commitment to the Church and to share in her witnessing to the love of Christ,” he said in a written statement.
But Shannen Dee Williams, a Black Catholic who teaches history at Villanova University, is uneasy about the move, and she points to history by way of explanation.
“During the Jim Crow era, African-American Catholics were overwhelmingly relegated to parishes specifically designated for them and excluded – sometimes violently – from attending many white and white ethnic parishes,” she said.