Deacon C. Matthew Hawkins

Deacon C. Matthew Hawkins speaks at a recent Community Come Together to Stand Against Violence event in Pittsburgh.

Black lives matter – and not just present ones, some Catholic educators are saying.

As part of the national discussion on racial injustice, there have been high-level calls for Catholic schools to teach more about the church’s past links to slavery and segregation, as well as the contributions of Black Catholics.

Leaders in the archdioceses of Chicago and New Orleans are encouraging their schools to educate students on racial injustice as well as on the history and accomplishments of Black Catholics. Moreover, the National Catholic Educational Association is forming an advisory committee to study how those measures might be undertaken in Catholic schools across the country.

“The teaching of anti-racism is pretty strong in Catholic schools,” Kathy Mears, the NCEA's interim president, told the Associated Press last month. “But teaching the contributions of Black Catholics to our history is not where it should have been.”

In addition, Villanova University history professor Shannen Dee Williams said, “The Church was never an innocent bystander in the histories of colonialism, slavery or segregation. Black Catholic history encourages us to acknowledge, confront and atone for this painful history.”

Father Matthew Hawkins agrees, but believes that any attempt to carry out such an initiative must do more than merely scratch the surface.

"My concern is that the interest in African American history, culture and experiences is likely to be just a passing fad," said Hawkins, parochial vicar at St. Benedict the Moor, the Diocese of Pittsburgh's personal parish for the Black Catholic community in Pittsburgh. "I am concerned that it will turn out to have been the 'flavor of the day' when we look back in five or 10 years from now. I hope I am wrong, but that has been the pattern over the past 200 years."

Hawkins, 63, a Pittsburgh native, spent time in New Castle as both a seminarian and a deacon. H was far from the traditional candidate for the priesthood when he was ordained in June, in terms of both age – the average age of ordination is 34 – and race. According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, out of 37,302 diocesan and religious-order priests in the United States, just 250 are African-American.

Hawkins also taught history at Carlow University and was an instructor at Pittsburgh's Imani Christian Academy, a predominantly Black private school.

"I think it's important to point out that Black Catholic history, like the history of Black Americans in general, should not be reduced to a history of 'racism' and suffering, nor should it simply be a listing of accomplishments of Black Catholics," Hawkins said. "Our history is much richer, more diverse, and more complicated than that. It is a story of resilience.

"I would remind my brother priests that they are responsible for all the souls in the geographic territory of their parish, not just the souls of the people they see in the pews or the souls of the Catholics in their geographic area. If clergy understand this, we might be more willing to make an effort to understand the history, culture, and experiences of the souls for whom we are responsible."

This, Hawkins said, will require that clergy and administrators embrace a desire to learn about people whose experiences they have taken for granted or have assumed they already knew.

"The willingness to learn is a challenge for principals of Catholic schools and directors of religious education, and also teachers," he said. "We have a long way to go."

In an email to The News, the Pittsburgh Diocese said the Black Catholic community is "deeply valued," and that Bishop David A. Zubik has engaged in multiple conversations with minority groups that have helped the diocese to "increase its awareness of building community with and among them," and that the diocese is committed to continued growth in this area.

While that doubtlessly is encouraging to those who want to see an increased emphasis on the teaching of the history of Black Catholics, Hawkins said that if change is to occur, it not only will have to come from the top down, but also from the bottom up.

"Catholic parents and the laity cannot afford to wait for the clergy, administrators and teachers to come up to speed on these topics," he said. "They must take the initiative to educate themselves."

Dan Irwin is a reporter and page designer for the New Castle News. Email him at d_irwin@ncnewsonline.com.

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