Friday, April 29, 2011

Fightin' Father Pfleger

These days, folks who live within the sound of the bells of the church at Racine and 78th Place on the South Side of Chicago refer to their community as Auburn-Gresham. My late Aunt Gertrude, (who has appeared in this space on numerous occasions, mostly on St. Patrick's Day), spent a great many of her 101 years in that neighborhood, but I'm sure the words "Auburn-Gresham" never crossed her lips. No, she lived in "St. Sabina's". The same goes for her best friend Ruth, several years her junior, who unlike Gert, was not a Catholic, but also came from "St. Sabina's".

Today in Chicago, and perhaps all over the world, the name St. Sabina's is far more well known than the name of the community it represents. That is entirely thanks to the man who has been its pastor for the last thirty years, Father Michael Pfleger.

Father Pfleger has been a tremendous force for good, not only at St. Sabina's parish, but in the entire community of Auburn-Gresham and beyond. As an activist, his has been a strong voice against many of the social ills that affect both the community and society at large; gangs, drugs, guns, violence, illicit sex, disrespect for women, racism, just to name a few. Not limiting his activism to the pulpit, Father Pfleger has taken cues from predecessors such as the Berrigan brothers. Like the anti-war priests that proceeded him, he has taken his activism into the streets, participating in acts of civil disobedience that has at least once landed him behind bars.

No stranger to publicity, for his efforts Pfleger has become something of a folk hero, (or villain depending on your point of view), in and around St. Sabina's and for that matter, the entire Chicago area.

Father Pfleger has also built up a strong Roman Catholic faith community within the largely non-Catholic African American community of Chicago. In a part of the city where Catholic churches are often taken over by other congregations, or shuttered and demolished, St. Sabina parish has flourished. It has sought and received little if any financial help from the Archdiocese of Chicago, and its finances remain in the black, even during difficult economic times. My own church on the other side of town cannot say the same about itself.

Given all of Pfleger's accomplishments, why one might ask, would Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago and spiritual leader of Chicago's 2.3 million Catholics, have his sights set on removing Father Pfleger from his post as pastor of St. Sabina's? Cynics would argue that the Archbishop is simply trying to use his power to silence a renegade priest who has often publicly expressed dissent with many of the expressed positions of the Church.

While it's true that the Cardinal has openly declared Father Pfleger at times to be a thorn in his side, he has also expressed praise and admiration for Pfleger's hard work and dedication to the faith and to his community. The fact is, over the past thirty years, every Catholic parish in Chicago, except one, has had to deal with the reassignment of at least one pastor, most likely more. While not nearly as well known as Father Pfleger, many of these men were just as vital, important and beloved to their parishes. Priests, including pastors, typically sign on for a 6 year stint at a given church, those who are pastors may have the option to sign on for another six years. That's it, twelve years at a parish and then it's time to go. That is, with the exception of Father Pfleger.

Many parishioners develop close relationships with their priests, and as I have experienced many times over, it can be difficult to say goodbye. The twelve year rule may seem to be arbitrary and unfair, but the cult of personality that develops around a popular priest can be problematic when that priest becomes the sole representative of the Church for his parishioners. By enforcing the rule, the Church is stating unequivocally that we Catholics are followers of Christ, and not of a particular priest.

The strong reaction against the Cardinal's decision to reassign Pfleger, by the parishioners of St. Sabina's and Father Pfleger himself, illustrate the Church's concern rather clearly. Pfleger has publicly stated that he may choose to leave the Roman Catholic Church, and implicitly stated that he'd take many of his congregation with him if the Cardinal persists in his actions. Which begs the question, do his parishioners see themselves first and foremost as Christians and Catholics, or Pflegerites?

By his actions, Pfleger has inadvertently made himself the poster child for support of the twelve year rule.

For his part, I believe the Cardinal has shown remarkable restraint and patience in his dealings with Father Pfleger. After all, Cardinal George was installed as Archbishop fourteen years ago, four years past Pfleger's twelfth anniversary as pastor of St. Sabina's, if my math is correct. He could have reassigned Pfleger from the get go had he chosen to do so. During the Cardinal's tenure in Chicago, he has had to publicly reign in Pfleger for several egregious comments made by the pastor. Once he threatened to "snuff out" a gun shop owner. Another was a well publicized racial diatribe against Hillary Clinton during her campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. The candidate Pfleger supported, Barack Obama, had to distance himself from Pfleger and his divisive words. Father Pfleger later apologized for both comments.

As it stands now, the Cardinal has only recommended that Father Pfleger step down at St. Sabina's to become the president of Leo High School which is steps away from the church. The new post would allow Pfleger to remain in the neighborhood, be free to continue his activities, and on occasion at least, celebrate mass at St. Sabina's. Yet Pfleger and his parishioners continue to protest what seems to be a very reasonable compromise.

Pfleger made his comments about possibly leaving the Catholic Church on NPR's Tavis Smiley program. You can hear a snippet of that interview here. In response, the Cardinal has suspended Pfleger from his role as pastor for an unspecified period of time. I'll let the Cardinal speak for himself. Here in PDF form is Cardinal George's letter to Father Pfleger, telling him of the suspension.

To the parishioners of St. Sabina's I would say this. I have great compassion for your cause. Father Pfleger has been a beacon of light in a troubled world. He has brought hope, inspiration and along with it, much needed development into your community. While it is very difficult to lose a beloved priest, it doesn't sound like he'll ever be very fay away. But it is very important to understand that in the Catholic faith at least, the Church does not belong to the Pope, Archbishop or the Parish Priest, all of whom will one day leave. It belongs to God. All of us as believers, black or white, are members of St. Sabina on the far South Side and members of St. Margaret Mary on the far North Side. Whether we're African, Asian, or European, American or Australian, we all belong to the Body of Christ. And as members of one body, we need each other. You are in my thoughts and my prayers.

Finally to Father Pfleger I would add this, if he cares to listen. You have fought many gallant battles against all odds against terrible causes of evil in our community. More often than not, you have won, and for that we owe you a debt of gratitude. That is your legacy. It is better to build than to tear apart as you no doubt know and we are all stronger when we are together than when we are apart. Some battles are worth fighting. Respectfully, this one is not. May God bless and keep you.


At the end of May, Cardinal George reinstated at least temporarily, Father Pfleger as the pastor of St. Sabina parish. The controversial priest has agreed to work out a transition plan for sometime in the future. You can read more about it here.

It sounds like everybody wins.

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