For the three decades Father Michael Pfleger of Saint Sabina Church has been a Chicago news maker, he’s kept the media consistently off balance.
For instance, “Pfleger’s Relentless Crusades,” a 2001 Tribune editorial, pointed out that Pfleger had broken laws, complained that he “too glibly dismissed the concerns” of opponents, and noted that he “likes the limelight,” “too much the lone ranger,” and was “too fast to play the race card.” Nevertheless, it concluded, “Chicago is lucky to have Pfleger.”
But was that the editorial page’s last word? Hardly. A month later it spoke again. “Pfleger’s Eyes Drift From Prize” accused the priest of “inflexibility,” “moral righteousness,” and “taking his ball and going home.”
Radical Disciple: The Story of Father Pfleger, a recent documentary by Bob Hercules, put Pfleger’s contradictions on display. “Footage of his apoplectic sermons lends credence to those who call Pfleger a demagogue and his pastorship a personality cult,” wrote the Reader‘s film critic, J.R. Jones. “But his relentless social activism against drugs, violence, and prostitution in the troubled community speaks for itself.”
Now there’s a book, Radical Disciple, by former Reader staff writer Robert McClory, that sets out to think him through. (The book project had nothing to do with the documentary project, but McClory’s publisher liked Hercules’s title so much that they got his permission to borrow it.)
McClory thinks Pfleger is a great priest.
It’s not that he claims to have seen to the man’s core. “Anytime I’ve tried to psychoanalyze anybody, it turns out to be a miserable result,” McClory tells me. “What are the deep-seated roots of him? I don’t know, and I don’t think we’re going to find out much. He’s not that introspective a person who’s constantly examining his motives. He says, ‘The problems are there, of crime and poverty and racism, and you’ve got to do something about it.’ And you can hardly argue with him. And he’s thinking, ‘Why wouldn’t everybody think this way?'”
It’s simply that when McClory observes a priest, he knows what he’s looking at. When he was young, McClory was a priest himself. And more than that: for seven years, he was a priest at Saint Sabina. He arrived in 1964, he writes, when Saint Sabina, “one of the largest and busiest churches in the whole city, was facing a challenging crisis.” A parishioner told him at once, “Father, we’re glad you’re here, but you need to know they are coming.” By 1967 the parish had dropped from just under 3,000 families, virtually all of them white, to 530. By 1971 the congregation had dropped by nine-tenths and was essentially black.
That was the year Father McClory asked to be dispensed from his religious obligations so he could marry the principal of the parish school, a nun who’d done the same. “We used to go back for funerals and weddings and everybody would say, ‘Oh, it’s Father McClory and Sister Margaret, and they have a baby.’ The people couldn’t have been nicer. If that had still been a white parish there would have been a lot of ‘What’s going on here?'”
When McClory left Saint Sabina, he could see no way for the small black congregation to financially maintain the large complex of buildings the dispersing large white congregation had abandoned; he figured it was a matter of time until the archdiocese shut the place down. He met Pfleger in 1975, just after Pfleger had arrived at Saint Sabina.
“I was just amazed because he was so energized,” McClory says today. “I thought, ‘Boy, he’s really eager to do something with this place. But he’ll burn out. There’s no way.’ I thought that even with a lot of goodwill and all of Pfleger’s enthusiasm he wouldn’t be able to turn it around, because there aren’t that many black Catholics. And secondly, he wasn’t the pastor—he was the associate pastor.”
But in 1989, when McClory wrote a profile of Pfleger for this paper, Pfleger was still going strong and Saint Sabina was thriving. Says McClory, “I just gloried in his obvious enthusiasm for the place.”
Today, Pfleger says Saint Sabina has 2,000 members (as distinct from families), which means it’s nowhere near as big as it used to be but a lot bigger than it was when he got there—big enough to consistently fill the church for the main Sunday mass. Do you envy Pfleger his energy and enthusiasm? I ask McClory.
“Oh yes,” he says. “That is the way a priest ought to be. That is what you think about when you read about the early church and the energy of the people going around the world and the missionaries down through the centuries who have been so activist. If you think the message is so vitally important, you hurl yourself into it totally. I thought, ‘Yeah, he’s got it way, way beyond anything I’ve got.’ I mention in the book that Louis Farrakhan, who’s his closest friend, said Pfleger is more like Jesus than the institutional church is.”
McClory gives Pfleger’s critics their say. For instance, he introduces Tom Roeser, chairman of Catholic Citizens of Illinois and the City Club of Chicago, as a conservative Catholic who deserves our respect, and he allows that before Roeser accused Pfleger of “serious theological impropriety and flagrant disobedience” and condemned the masses at Saint Sabina as “liturgical nightmares,” he attended one or two of them. He lets Virgil Jones, once Pfleger’s right-hand man at Saint Sabina, explain why he doesn’t worship there anymore. Jones began to question what seemed to him Pfleger’s preoccupation with publicity. (“Are we overusing the media?” he wondered. “Why do we have to let them know every time we do something? Why can’t we just do it?”) He decided that the size of the student body in the parish school concerned Pfleger more than the quality of the education there. Sermons struck him as repetitive and too political. And he had career concerns: he didn’t feel he was being “developed as a leader,” because of Pfleger’s “way of doing things alone, his patriarchal style.”
But McClory, on his own authority, is much less critical of Pfleger than he is simply knowing. Listening to Pfleger’s sermons, McClory hears more than the words and sees more than the theatrics. He identifies the specific techniques the priest marshals to put the sermons over. He discusses Pfleger’s evangelism—his focus on Scripture and emphasis on sharing the faith—in the context of the Second Vatican Council, which championed the word of God as “the pure and perennial source of spiritual life.” He explains that “this heavy emphasis on the Bible as the pillar of the church at St. Sabina . . . leaves Catholicism’s other pillar, the Eucharist (the presence of Jesus in consecrated bread and wine), without equal billing. . . . This quiet, latter part of the service can seem like an afterthought.” And the idea of the Eucharist as an afterthought is likely to strike a traditionalist as an affront to 2,000 years of Catholic practice.
McClory tells us the church regards the Bible as one source of doctrine, and the “tradition,” or church teachings that have come down through the centuries, as the other. It’s tradition with the force of law, tradition that makes so many church leaders condemn an idea or activity as “contrary to the teachings of the church,” rather than to the teachings of Christ. When Tom Roeser calls the Saint Sabina masses liturgical nightmares, it’s not the Bible he’s accusing Pfleger of flouting but doctrinal tradition. To Pfleger, this is “church idolatry,” McClory explains. “The church, the rules, the regulations, become an idol we set up above and beyond Christ. And Pfleger feels that to get back to what Jesus was talking about, you need to bend the rules a bit. It’s the way he sees it, it’s the way his people see it. And I agree with him.”
Not every reader will agree with Pfleger and McClory that doctrinal tradition needs to be put in its place, but it’s likely that a lot of readers will think seriously about the origins of doctrine for the first time. Likewise, readers of Radical Disciple won’t all decide it’s fine that Louis Farrakhan is Pfleger’s closest friend. But they’ll understand why Pfleger values the friendship. McClory helps us see who we’ve been looking at.